Like it or not, Kentucky's Calipari is college hoops poster boy

Kentucky coach John Calipari and DeAndre Liggins exult during the Wildcats' 76-69 East Regional win over North Carolina.
Kentucky coach John Calipari and DeAndre Liggins exult during the Wildcats' 76-69 East Regional win over North Carolina.
Posted: March 28, 2011

NEWARK, N.J. - The do-gooders won't like this. Not at all. Sanctimonious hoops heads everywhere are no doubt scrambling for the holy water and the wooden stakes and whatever else might help them slay what they perceive as an awful evil that's been visited upon college basketball and the Final Four - again.

John Calipari, the most polarizing of coaches, has once more reached the NCAA tournament's penultimate game. Kentucky won the East Regional at the Prudential Center on Sunday, pushing past North Carolina, 76-69. In the process, Calipari joined Rick Pitino as the only coach in history to lead three schools to the Final Four.

"We lost five first-round draft picks [last year], and everyone wants to say you can't win with young players," Calipari said. But "if it's [a choice between] talent or experience . . . I'm taking talent."

That might make the ne'er-do-wrong crowd - the ones who obsess over infractions and emphasize student before saying athlete - angry or sad or both. They're a sensitive lot.

To them, there's a right way to do things and then there's Calipari's way. To them, Calipari is the embodiment of what's wrong with college athletics - nothing more than a slick recruiter who's been accused of bending and breaking, twisting and tearing the NCAA's righteous rules to win basketball games and grow his legend. (Quick aside about that: Kentucky fans booed NCAA president Mark Emmert when he handed Calipari the East Regional championship trophy on Sunday.)

There's no doubt that Calipari is a smooth operator. He locks down highly touted players with ease. You get the sense that, had he been born earlier, he would have made a fine living knocking on doors to sell high-powered and expensive vacuum cleaners to trusting housewives with dirt floors and no electricity. A man has to make a living.

But those who dismiss him as nothing but an accomplished pitchman and recruiter ignore the whole truth: The man can coach both ends of the floor. Against Kentucky, the Tar Heels were almost eight points off their usual per-game pace. And the number of quality, if not necessarily open, looks that Calipari's kids got against Ohio State and North Carolina in Newark were credits to his strategy. (UK shot just over 48 percent from the field and almost 55 percent from three-point range against UNC).

The detractors often point to Calipari's suspect and itinerant history. Type "Calipari" and "NC" into Google, and before you can double tap the remaining "AA" onto that second word, the search engine's auto-complete feature offers up the helpful and inevitable "violations."

At UMass, around the time John Chaney was threatening to beat and skin Calipari and then wear him as a decorative hat, coaching's bad boy was accused of looking the other way while Marcus Camby allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from various agents. That a college kid would want more than lint and gum in his pocket was apparently seen then, as it is now, as an assault on democracy. How the Republic ever survived those scandalous UMass years is a mystery.

More recently, and shortly after Calipari decamped for Kentucky, Memphis was accused of "major violations" - including the allegation that a former Tiger had cheated on a standardized test to gain admission to the school. Ever play Frogger? That's Calipari - deftly zigzagging his way through the NCAA traffic without going (permanently) splat.

That bothers some people - most of whom willingly ignore the fact that major college basketball stopped being about amateur achievement a long time ago and has morphed into a de facto minor league for the NBA. Players who want to spend four years knocking around a bucolic college campus are increasingly rare these days. They also tend to do it because they don't have a choice. Ask any college kid whether he'd like to sit through another seminar or graduate directly to shopping for Maybachs. I doubt he'd have to think about it too long.

The best ballers are generally one-and-done types - skilled players making a brief pit stop as they race to the professional finish line. That doesn't just happen at Calipari-coached schools. Duke, that bastion of basketball virtue, has had quite a few of those players, too. Kyrie Irving might be one this year. Shhh. Don't tell the devout in Durham. It would shake their blind faith in Coach K.

It's the way the system works. You can criticize Calipari for exploiting that reality if you wish, but that seems like a pointless exercise. If Calipari is looking the other way, he isn't the only one.

At a time when popular sports documentaries glorify the Fab Five and Jerry Tarkanian's early-1990s Runnin' Rebels, we're all well aware of what we're watching, how athletics have evolved (or devolved, if you insist), and how much money is made on big-time college hoops. The NCAA and universities across the land have become unspeakably rich by feeding the public a very specific and steady diet - and the pooh-bahs at those respective institutions know, better than most, exactly how the sports sausage is ground and packaged and sold to the greedy, willing consumer. And so do you - gobble, gobble.

Calipari is back in the Final Four. Choke it down if you must.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or

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