John Calipari vs the NCAA: Athletics make for strange bedfellows

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a play during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas defeated Kentucky 73-60. (Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports)

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari told reporters that he would have no problem breaking away from the NCAA if changes aren’t made to eligibility rules. (Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s been a rough few weeks for the NCAA. With the BCS switching to a playoff format, football’s governing body has struggled to put together a selection committee for its new system. The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit is also hanging over the NCAA’s head, sparking debate on when/should/how to pay college athletes. On Friday, a familiar thorn in the side returned. John Calipari took to the airwaves in Louisville and struck a new battle with his old nemesis, the NCAA.

Calipari and the NCAA have a long, tumultuous history. Coach Cal’s 1996 UMass team vacated its tournament wins after star player Marcus Camby was found to have received $28,000 in payments along with jewelry and prostitutes from agents. The 2007-2008 Memphis Tigers—national runners-up—forfeited their entire season due to the controversies surrounding Derrick Rose. Rose fraudulently had another student take his SAT, so that he would be eligible for Memphis. Also, Rose’s brother traveled with the team for free that entire season—another NCAA violation. While Calipari was never implicated in any of the scandals, it’s hard to ignore the problems at his previous tenures. With two Final Four runs vacated, it looks like Calipari is as good at covering his tracks as he is coaching.

In his radio interview with WKJK Calipari called out the NCAA, saying they have embarrassed him. He did not directly say how he was embarrassed, but we can read it one of two ways. First, that he’s been embarrassed in the past by the scandals and vacated wins. Second, that he was embarrassed by UK’s recent trip to the NIT, where they lost in the first round.

[Watch: Full video of Calipari talking about potentially breaking away from the NCAA]

Regarding the scandals, it’s easy to understand why Coach Cal is embarrassed. Any coach, whose teams fought for wins and did so well in the tournament, would be ashamed to see wins taken from the books. The fallout, especially from UMass, highlights the NCAA’s silliness. Marcus Camby took money from an agent then left school early, yet the only institution punished was UMass athletics—it must be noted that Camby repaid UMass for the fines they incurred. His case harkens back to the argument of player reimbursement. The NCAA and its schools make millions of dollars off amateur athletes who are, in turn, not allowed to benefit from their on-court performance.

It’s indentured servitude, terribly exploitative.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a play during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas defeated Kentucky 73-60. (Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports)

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari is a pretty dramatic guy these days. (Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports)

However, rules in place must be followed. Calipari, whether or not he agreed with the statues, signed contracts committing himself to work within the constraints of the NCAA rulebook. He may not have personally accepted agents’ money or advised Rose to cheat on the SAT, but Coach Cal is ultimately responsible. Head coaches are responsible for everything that happens within their program, good or bad. His past situations illustrate the lunacy laid out by the NCAA, but he’s bound to the same rules as every other coach. Blaming the NCAA for embarrassing him in this way reads as a coach lacking accountability and searching for a scapegoat.

If Calipari’s embarrassment stems from his team’s flop against Robert Morris in the NIT, then it’s difficult to see why his vitriol is aimed at the NCAA. I understand his anger at not making The Dance, but their record was to be expected. If anything, Calipari’s recent run has been an aberration. Basketball is a game of teamwork and familiarity. Historically, teams that perform the best are ones that have been together for a few years. Veteran teams. Players learn their teammates habits and shooting preferences. They communicate through actions, not words, knowing each others’ tendencies. Continuity breeds success.

[Related: Kentucky has a rematch vs. Robert Morris next year]

It’s been a phenomenal run for Calipari. Having his players pick up the dribble-drive motion offense so quickly has been astounding. However, it bucks in the face of history. He’s had a perfect storm of healthy squads, players fulfilling potential, and star power. There was bound to be a season where a star got hurt and some guys didn’t pan out. It was inevitable that some players would be too selfish. This could’ve happened with Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, or Anthony Davis. It just happened to occur to Nerlens Noel. Calipari’s recruiting model yields lofty successes, but it’s also very combustible.

Most coaches recruit players they know will stay with the program for two to four years. They anchor rosters with promising four-year projects and then inject veteran teams with one-and-done prodigies. Calipari does not build around veterans. He brings in waves of stud recruits, fully expecting them to leave for the NBA after one year. Guys want to make it to the big leagues; Coach Cal makes it happen. He could model teams after coaches like Billy Donovan over at Florida or Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski, blending blue chippers with veterans. Instead, he overhauls the roster each year, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle. So far the model has worked, but Calipari shouldn’t be surprised when teams don’t gel.

Calipari’s denouncing of the NCAA seems arrogant.

He’s right in asserting that more years of eligibility is better for both the college game, as well as the NBA. However, he is off base claiming to be the only coach stumping for more new rules. Bobby Knight has long been opposed to the one-year eligibility rule. He’s publicly stated that the rule removes the word “student” from the term student-athlete. Legendary coach Dean Smith has also been an opponent to eligibility rules. Coach Smith has gone as far as saying freshmen shouldn’t even be eligible to play. He believes that first-year students should all assimilate to campus, learning how to live away from home, before taking on the rigors of college athletics. Those two coaches have 1,781 combined wins and their voices are well respected. John Calipari is most certainly not the only coach to have spoken out against today’s eligibility standards.

[Watch: The Daily show exposes the NCAA’s laughable eligibility standards]

Coach Cal seems to believe that no other coaches want longer eligibility because they’re afraid of great players staying at Kentucky for more than one year. I believe that a new age minimum would hurt UK’s recruiting. His main sales pitch—aside from the legendary Wildcat program—is that he’ll get players to the NBA. So far this has proved correct. However, so many players go to UK because they know they’ll play immediately. UK recruiting classes are so stacked that players only have a year to prove themselves. Within a year they’re looking over their shoulders at the next crop of “can’t miss” high school recruits.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a call during the game against the Florida Gators in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Florida 61-57. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a call during the game against the Florida Gators in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Florida 61-57. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

With two-year minimums, Calipari wouldn’t be able to guarantee immediate playing time. His teams would be log jammed. Great players want to have an impact. They would start dispersing around the country, choosing to play for programs that wouldn’t have as much competition.

Two things are terribly flawed with Calipari’s arguments against the NCAA. First is that the age rule is not an NCAA matter. It’s an NBA rule. The NBA, not NCAA, has an age minimum. Coach Cal’s anger should be directed towards the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Sure, the NCAA has sway, but age limitations ultimately lie with the professional league.

Secondly, Cal’s hackneyed implication that UK should secede from the NCAA. Slow down, coach — you are in the South, but secession is not the answer.

A short answer is that, for all its prominence, UK men’s basketball is not the leading revenue generator on campus. Yep, Kentucky’s doormat football program generates more revenue than it’s blueblood basketball program. A 2011 report compiled revenue data that was reported to the US Department of Education by state universities. UK’s football program generated nearly $32M; UK basketball brought in nearly $17M in revenue. For all its prominence, UK basketball just isn’t the moneymaker football is. With the SEC signing a lucrative contract with ESPN, and the rapid expanse of college football’s power, there is no way UK would ever step away from the NCAA. There is too much money on the table. It’s a noble idea, but ultimately a lot of bluster.

John Calipari and the NCAA are perfect bedfellows. The NCAA is rife with hypocrisy and needs a severe overhaul. Calipari pimps the system for all its worth and exposes the NCAA’s lunacy.

With one-and-done rules, the NCAA and NBA have stripped academics from college athletics. NCAA basketball is now a free-labor system for both groups. Calipari doesn’t have to make his kids attend class for more than a semester, so he doesn’t push academia. It’s this dichotomy that makes him such a great champion for change. However, Cal’s calls to arms appear more self-serving than altruistic. If he could put away the sour grapes and speak on behalf of the coaches, rather than just his embarrassed staff, he may generate a little more traction. This isn’t good for the NCAA, though.

When John Calipari, with his checkered past, questions your legitimacy, you’re in trouble.

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