Calipari — The Devil Wears Zegna

published July 1, 2010

For such a hard-working coach, John Calipari is sure followed by a lot of vacations.

First there was UMass, where the NCAA vacated the school’s 1996 Final Four appearance.  That was no problem for Coach Cal, since he’d moved on to the NBA by the time the investigators came knocking.

Then he went to Memphis and took them one step farther, reaching the final game in 2008 before losing to Kansas in overtime, a result that the NCAA vacated last August, ordering the forfeiture of 38 wins and Memphis’s tournament revenue.  By then, of course, Coach Cal had landed in Lexington.

Last week, Coach Cal attended the NBA Draft, which he called an “a two-hour infomercial” for his Kentucky program.  Five Wildcat players were taken in the first round, and Calipari told ESPN it was “the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history.”

Most would agree that it was bigger than the day in March when West Virginia beat Kentucky in the East regional final.

Calipari told Dan Patrick the day after the draft that having so many players taken so early “was like winning the national title.”

Patrick could well have asked, How would you know?   A national championship is as absent from Calipari’s resume as his team’s accomplishments are from the official NCAA record book.

As for his NBA credentials, in his two-plus years with the New Jersey Nets he had a .391 winning percentage and no playoff victories, the latter record resulting from three actual losses rather than forfeits after the fact.

Calipari believes the high picks demonstrate his unique ability to prepare players for the NBA.  “We’re a players-first program,” he said.

I think that’s great.  It’s the responsibility of every adult to make sure that young people with basketball skills know that everything’s about them.

Four freshmen and a junior are heading to the pros from the Kentucky campus, having learned the vital lesson that nothing will be expected of them beyond the sidelines.  Calipari believes that young people will flock to his program, looking to add their names to the school’s glorious list of first-round draft choices.

He’s probably right.  The devil has always been able to tempt the unwary by appealing to their vanity.

From the 1970s to the ‘90s, the NCAA doggedly pursued Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada-Las Vegas, treating him as though he were evil incarnate.  With his deep sunken eyes above ever-present dark circles, bald pate, persecuted expression, and shark-skin suited Vegas cronies, Tark was an obvious target – too obvious.  He won one national title and reached four Final Fours, and railed continually against the NCAA’s tactics and rules.

Does that sound like how the devil operates?

Or is he more likely a smooth charmer, someone who looks good and works well but is empty inside?

Calipari sails serenely above the messes he creates.  He gives colleges exactly what they think they want, skipping town just before they realize the statue is just gold-plated, and the thick wad of hundreds has only ones on the inside.

Of course, in Kentucky he may have found his perfect home.  The biggest prior days in UK basketball history include the one when the NCAA ordered the program shut down for a year because of its players’ involvement in point-shaving; the day Adolph Rupp signed the only African-American recruit in his forty-one years of coaching; and the night in 1978 when Joe B. Hall’s team won an NCAA championship that was almost universally described as “joyless” and “unhappy” due to the pressure of expectations.

Big Blue Nation may be perfectly happy with a revolving door in the Wildcat locker room, with a coach and team that make no pretense of connecting athletics with education.  The future of college basketball, Calipari argues, lies in recruiting the best of the “one and done” players and turning them loose.  “I hope we have six [first-rounders] one day,” he said after the draft.

“I was upset that we lost,” top draft pick John Wall said of his one Kentucky season, “but you’ve got to move on about it and I think we had a great college career.”

They take a different approach in Durham, where Mike Krzyzewski started three seniors and two juniors this season, none of whom were drafted at all.  Still, Duke did win the NCAA championship, which makes for a pretty great college career in its own way.

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