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Kentucky Basketball: The Calipari Theorem

The amount of disdain and vitriol that is sent John Calipari's way is unfounded and I delve into the hypocrisy of it.

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Full disclosure: I am going to be upfront and unapologetic about the fact that I am a Kentucky fan, and I bleed blue.  I once missed school for two days following a UK loss to Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena.  Allan Houston went to the line with for Tennessee with the Volunteers down three; he made the first and missed the second on purpose.  He committed a blatant, uncalled lane violation which led to a Tennessee rebound, put back and-1, and a loss for my Wildcats.

I once made a deal with God that I would not attend my high school prom as a junior if only he would let my 1996 Wildcats go all the way.  The cute exchange student from Ecuador asked me to go and I really wanted to, but I held my end of the bargain!  I was at the corner of Euclid Avenue in 1998 after we won a much-unexpected title experiencing the euphoria of thousands of others around in what was one of the favorite nights of my life.

Having said all that, I am also an educated fan; I know when we deserve praise and when we deserve criticism.  I will be the first to admit when we are subpar, but without wondering what Sean Miller is doing next season and if he likes Lexington.  I can have a rational conversation with fans of other teams with rational thoughts about UK.  My point in telling you all this is because the article you are about to read is coming from a card-carrying member of Big Blue Nation.  The difference will be that it will have a significant dose of reality and rationality to show the unfounded hate and disdain that John Calipari endures.

Before Kentucky hired Calipari, I did not fully know the scope of his success or his off-the-court endeavors.  I knew we beat his UMass team in the Final Four in 1996 on our way to the title, avenging a loss early season that dethroned Kentucky from our preseason #1 ranking.  I knew he had won a ton of games at a school in Massachusetts that should not have been winning like that.  I knew at Memphis he was again winning a ton of games, nearly winning a national title, and bringing in the best players in America.  I knew that when it came to the college game, Calipari was doing things not many could even do at the blue blood schools, much less UMass and Memphis... albeit with a cloud of "shadiness" around him.

When Tubby Smith left, I recall many people were adamant they did not want "crooked Calipari" at UK, he just did not fit.  We wanted Billy Donovan and later we wanted Billy Gillisipie.  I will admit, I was a frontrunner in wanting Gillispie, even hoping it was Gillispie and not Donovan... oops.  Soon after the debacle that was Billy Clyde, the time came again for a coach.  This time around the tide had turned from thinking Calipari was not up to par for UK to wanting him to get us back to glory.  I had some concerns: the World Wide Wes rumors were rampant, as were the whispers of every other non-UK fan telling anyone who would listen to get ready for vacated titles, but I was still excited to have a proven winner.

I have learned a lot in Coach Cal's five years in Lexington, but probably the most confusing is the all-out hate so many have for the man.  There is no question he is the most polarizing figure in college basketball today.  Just mention his name outside the Big Blue Nation and you will get pejorative nicknames like "PayPal Cal," "Calamari," and others.  The nicknames and narratives all equal an overwhelming sense of judgment from anyone that wants to give their two cents about it.  The Calipari disdain is not confined to just the common fan either; many in the national spotlight have taken Cal to task for anything that can possibly garner a hit on a website.

To get a better idea of just what I am talking about, let's look at a few examples.  Just a few weeks ago, shortly after the final horn went off, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel wrote an article proclaiming Cal to have been out-coached again, this time by Kevin Ollie.  I am certain he had this piece already written and saved and was just dying to release it.  The article was titled "Outcoached again, John Calipari showed why he’ll never succeed in the NBA"  Consider these two points:

  • "Calipari and college basketball are stuck dancing in awkward hands-on-shoulders circles for the rest of his career." I am not sure what is so awkward about the five year run of 3 final fours, 4 elite eights and one national title.  It seems like a match made in heaven, actually Pete.

  • "The NBA is a players league", "Calipari's me first persona won't fly in the NBA" Thamel must have failed to notice that Calipari actually wrote a book discussing his players first mentality to coaching.  Not to mention, anyone with any knowledge of Coach Cal would know the reason it may not be a fit is because he asks his players to sacrifice themselves for the team and be their brothers keeper. That's a bizarre take on Calipari at odds with reality.
Thamel did go on with somewhat valid points about the X's and O's of the rest of the game, with an obviously aggressive slant.  Let us imagine for a moment that the article was objective in nature, and called for.  So here is my question to Pete Thamel, "When can we expect your articles on the failures of Coach K and Jim Boeheim?"  Cal has been to the Elite Eight or farther in four of five seasons at Kentucky — Jim Boeheim has done it 6 times in 38 years.

Boeheim is also the first coach to ever lose six NCAA Tournament games to double digit seeds.  In the last four years, Duke has exited the tournament in the first round on two occasions.  Once to 15 seed Lehigh and this year to 14 seed Mercer.   Where is Thamel's article about that?  Kentucky beat 4-seed Louisville the Cardinals were favored.  UConn dispatched 2-seed Villanova, 3-seed Iowa St, 4-seed Michigan St and #1 overall team Florida.  Pete, where is the article proclaiming Wright, Hoiberg, Izzo, and Donovan clearly not NBA material?  I could go on for pages and pages refuting articles similar to this; there is no shortage of people looking to take a shot at him.

I will spare you the novel and hit the highlights.  Bobby Knight had plenty to say and has made it clear that he has a considerable amount of disdain for Cal and UK.  He once even went as far as refusing to say the word Kentucky until his employer ESPN had to step in.  Two of the more poignant quotes
  • "We've gotten into this situation where integrity is really lacking and that's why I'm glad I'm not coaching. You see, we've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that." Mind you this coming from a coach who choked a player. I will repeat, he choked a player yet questions Cal's integrity.

  • "There's a situation in college basketball that really bothers me beyond anything that's ever bothered me in my career, Kentucky, year before last, started five players in the NCAA Tournament games that had not been to class that semester." Oops, that is false, Coach Knight. They all regularly attended class, and only one player (little used reserve Daniel Orton) did not finish the semester before going pro. Unfortunately for the rest of the nation, Bobby Knight has a lot of opinions and I guess we all just have to lay back and take it, at lest until ESPN's ratings or Knight's mouth end his tenure.

Then there is maybe Coach Cal's biggest detractor, Pat Forde.  Just a few weeks ago Pat wrote a column entitled "You made your bed John Calipari, now lie in it." If there was ever a more eager push of the "enter" button on a computer, I'd like to see it.  I will say, the questions Forde asked were valid questions, but the feel was extremely personal and anybody within 50 miles of Lexington or Louisville will confirm the tone as more personal than professional.  To avoid using conjecture, let us look at some examples.  Just before the NCAA tournament, Forde proclaimed it a good day for chickens and went on discussing the victories of mascots that fit the narrative.  It was not enough though; he could not help himself, saying "...and Kentucky coach John Calipari for the first time since he refused to continue playing Indiana home-and-home in 2012."  Never mind that Crean refused to play alternating neutral site games of Indianapolis and Louisville.  Cal even was willing to play the games in the state of Indiana every year and not have them come to Kentucky at all.  Crean's response was "We couldn't have gotten our students up there," said Crean.  "Prices would have been too much to get them there." Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

However, Pat keeps on putting the onus squarely on Cal acting as if Crean was the victim.  Pat Forde was once suspended from the Louisville Courier-Journal for ethics issues, if you come across a glass house, knock on the door and tell Pat hello.  I will say though, in a moment of what had to be misery for him, Forde did recently write an article proclaiming Coach Cal's method works and works better than anyone else's.

So, let us get to the meat of the story, exactly what John Calipari has done to earn such a reviled reputation:

  • UMass had their 1996 Final Four vacated due to Marcus Camby accepting money from an agent. Step back and think about that for a minute. One of his current players, unbeknownst to him, took money from an agent who had nothing to do with UMass, NOTHING. How does Camby taking money from an agent implicate Cal as corrupt or a cheater in any way? Furthermore, how could it possibly help the program in any way? Yet, people speak in confidence that "Coach Cal put UMass on probation." It is clearly axe-grinding and agenda based.

  • Memphis had their 2008 Final Four vacated due to a player, presumably Derrick Rose. being ruled ineligible after the fact. Cal did not pay Rose; he did not break a rule. Rose allegedly did not take his ACT and had someone else take it. The NCAA Clearinghouse cleared Rose, what exactly should Cal have done, decide to not play Rose "in case" something came up. Of course not, nobody would do that. It was well after the season that the ineligibility was investigated and determined. Yet the consensus is so judgmental, you would think Coach Cal actually took the test for Rose, and then paid him to come to Memphis.

  • Eric Bledsoe became college eligible late in his high school career and the allegation is he was given grades. I only bring this up because there was no evidence to support this and furthermore, the entire premise of this allegation was based on someone ILLEGALLY leaking his transcript. Virtually NOTHING was said about this illegal act and the fact that the investigation continued after this ILLEGAL act is puzzling. One has to wonder if Bledsoe went to Florida, who was also recruiting him, if this would have happened. The answer is probably "no," and I will touch on that later when we discuss Sean Dockery.

  • Coach Cal pushed out current players! When Cal was hired at UK, he went through a recruiting process and determined who fit into his program and who did not. He did not kick a single person off the team; he was brutally honest about their future with the program. The funny thing is that by Cal doing this, he was actually doing the players a favor. He was allowing them the opportunity to go to a better situation. If new ownership came into your job tomorrow and told you that your future with the company was murky, would you not prefer the honesty and be glad they gave you a heads-up to give you ample opportunity to find a better fit?

That's it, that's the list... now let's look at some other big time coaches transgressions, and humor me if you will; just imagine the coach in question to be John Calipari and wonder just how severe the reaction to it would be:

  • Revisiting the aforementioned Eric Bledsoe, Duke has a former player named Sean Dockery. Sean had a bit over a 2.0 GPA and a 15 ACT Score, he got the ACT score of 17 at the 11th hour and brought his GPA high enough to get into Duke. I am not picking on Dockery; he very well could have earned it on his own. My question is where was the dumpster diving and door knocking and outrage over him and the numerous other kids this happens too? Why did nobody illegally leak his transcripts? Do not hold your breath waiting on an answer.

  • Another similar grade scandal, Darrell Arthur at Kansas had his math teacher openly admit that a grade was changed in order for him to be eligible for basketball. Could you imagine if one of Bledsoe's teachers said that?

  • In 1999, Corey Maggette admitted to accepting cash from a summer league coach. This was not in an interview or something arbitrary, this was in a sworn statement that contradicted his earlier denials. Duke's response: "We were unaware." Duke finished 2nd that year, did they have a Final Four vacated? No, they did not, but UMass and Memphis certainly did even though Cal and the universities were "unaware."

  • Duke won a national title in 2010 with the help of a player named Lance Thomas. In 2009, according to court documents (not rumor or hearsay) Thomas spent $30,000 on a down payment on jewelry and was financed for another $67,800. Thomas was a senior at Duke with ZERO income, yet had the means for a $30,000 down payment and $68,000 worth of credit. So with this blatantly obvious shadiness going on, what happened? Nothing, nada, zilch, zero. Just for one moment, imagine if it were Demarcus Cousins, he was on the 2012 National Title team, and it happened to him. Can you honestly say it would have come out the same?

  • Yahoo was able to cite four sources "with intimate knowledge" that 10 Syracuse players had repeatedly failed drug tests and were allowed to practice and play even though policies stated they should have been suspended. Could you imagine if this came out that over the past 5 years Cal had allowed this?

  • Rick Pitino's story is so riddled with WTF moments it reads like a terrible lifetime movie. He committed adultery on a public restaurant table, impregnated the woman in question, and then paid her to have an abortion. Can you imagine Calipari doing this and not only keeping his job; but also essentially having it swept under the rug as if it never happened?

  • Did you know that Roy Williams left Kansas on probation? Unlikely as it did not make much of a fuss, but they were found to have given graduation gifts from boosters to players as going out presents (many times before leaving). It was widely accepted that Roy knew about it and approved of it. Again, imagine this just came out about Calipari as he was leaving Memphis? Pat Forde and Pete Thamel would have teamed up to try and get an asterisk tied to Coach Cal's legal name.

  • Jim Calhoun was suspended while at UConn for having a former manager steer Nate Miles to UConn by providing transport, meals, lodging, and representation. Nothing to see here; we will see you after four games Mr. Calhoun. Enjoy your vacation. There is also the fact that UConn was banned from the 2012 NCAA tournament due to low academic progress rates. Did you know that Coach Cal boasts a 963 APR, which is above the national average?

Therefore, I have listed Coach K, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams, and Bill Self in much worse or similar NCAA "issues."  Yet the clear-cut winner in the most polarizing and dirtiest coach of the group is John Calipari?  Why?  Why is there such disdain for a coach who literally cares more about the names on the back of the jersey than he does the name on the front?  After Kentucky had five first round draft picks, he proclaimed it the greatest night in Kentucky basketball history.  While we all know that is a stretch, he believed it and still does.  The reason he feels this way is because of his players' first mentality.  Cal knew the importance of that night because it has allowed him to recruit to a level never seen in the history of the game.  It is also the reason he will have his former players making tens of millions in the NBA this season.

Why hate a coach who does so much philanthropic stuff behind the scenes with little to no fan fare?  In 2010, Haiti suffered devastating destruction due to an earthquake and in just over 2 days (while UK was ranked #1 and 18-0 mind you) he personally organized a 4-hour telethon with his players and raised over $1 million dollars for Haiti relief.  Every year he brings pizza and various refreshments for people camping out for tickets.  Calipari still donates nearly 7 figures of money per year to various organizations in Memphis, where he is largely hated.  He travelled to China to teach coaches more about America basketball in hopes of broadening the sports global brand.  One of the more recent examples of just how Calipari is thinking about more than just wins is the college fund he wanted to start:  Coach Cal and his wife approached the NCAA asking if they could personally fund a grant (with their own money) that would allow anyone who played for him to have their kids college paid for by this grant.  The NCAA shot it down:

"I presented this to the NCAA, my wife and I.  We want to start a fund.  We'll fund it; we'll put the money in.  That every player that's ever played for me, whether they be at Mass, Memphis, or Kentucky, can request a grant for their children's education.  In addition, that fund would peel off money for that reason.  And when I stop coaching 25 years later, the money that's left in that fund would be split between Memphis, Massachusetts, and Kentucky.

What was the response?  ‘It's an extra benefit.' My wife and I sat there and said, ‘we've been thinking about this for five years, this is what we want to do.  So, why can't we put $5 or $10 million in an account that peels out money that all those players that have played for me? ‘Because you'll use it in recruiting.  And you'll have an advantage.' Well, I won't if 50 other coaches do the same thing.  Now, if 50 of us do it, we can afford it.  I'm not the only guy that's done well and am blessed.  Well, 50 of us do it.  ‘That's bad.'"

I will close with a quote from Calipari while he was attending a cancer research benefit gala hosted by Dick Vitale;

"Now as I get older, life becomes less about me and more about everyone around me.  It's about players reaching their dreams, assistants becoming head coaches, support staff growing their families and also helping the Big Blue Nation realize their dreams.  It's about causes that move me, like this one."

"In closing, earlier this week I relayed to the Big Blue Nation that I NEVER want to be JUST a basketball coach.  I coach basketball and it's my profession but it's not who I am.  But, we can use our positions to come together on nights like this for a very worthy cause.  It's the people we touch through this game and those who we will touch tonight who feel moved to do something to help us fight this dreaded disease.  Mom, I love you.  Thank you."

You can disagree with his philosophies, his beliefs, his hopes and dreams, but what you cannot refute his genuineness.  This is a man who cares far more about his ability to make a difference in people's lives than his press clippings.  It is actually refreshing, and the haters are either ignorant of him and what he does, or are simply unhappy people who can't fill the hole in their hearts with anything but disdain and negativity.  As for me, I am going to enjoy the ride.