The name John Calipari has become synonymous with what many fans view as the worst in college basketball: sleazy recruiting, one-and-done players, lowered standards for on-court play. CBS's Gregg Doyel sums it up here:
You know what I'm talking about. You know the idea. It's not my idea, but it's out there. It's everywhere. Kentucky -- OK, Kentucky coach John Calipari -- recruits basketball players who come to college (gasp) just to play basketball. Calipari courts them, signs them, rolls the ball onto the court and watches them win 30 games a year while he's texting Worldwide Wes and lining up his next recruiting class of one-and-done Neanderthals.
I've seen many of the readers at this site echo this sentiment, and I haven't been immune to it myself. Like Doyel, though, I've slowly come to find these arguments tired. They miss the point. And indeed, I've even begun to find Calipari endearing for his frankness about the way he does business, and I admire him for his success.
Look, I get that what Calipari is running is far from an amateur student-athlete squad. But calling him out for that is only to obscure the fact that this is the case at most high-profile basketball programs, and probably at many not-so-high-profile programs, too, even if they don't have players who are good enough to be one-and-done. As Doyel says with tongue in cheek,
Because big-time college basketball is about education on other campuses -- just not at Kentucky. It's about education at Duke, where saintly Mike Krzyzewski has lost a one-and-done point guard two years in a row. It's about education at North Carolina, where ol' Roy Williams has seen 11 players leave early for the NBA in the past seven years. It's about education everywhere but Kentucky, where it's about something more sinister.
What I take away from this: Don't fault Calipari for doing something others are doing. If you do, you're buying into a media narrative that does more to mystify the prevalence of Calipari's practices than it does to say anything substantive about Calipari himself.
If the NCAA and the universities want to make college basketball about the ideal of student athletes, they know how to do it. Pressure the NBA into abolishing the one-and-done rule so the guys who only want to play basketball don't go to college. Make players who choose to go to college do so for at least three years, as with baseball. Stop having a month-long tournament every March that takes students out of the classroom. But don't stage a witch hunt for Calipari when he's only the symptom, not the problem.
Indeed, Calipari admits that he wishes it could be another way. Doyel quotes Calipari as saying,
"I don't apologize -- it's not my rule," Calipari said Sunday. "I don't like the rule. ... There's only two solutions to it: Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting, or I can try to convince guys that should leave [for the NBA] to stay for me."
In sum: If you want to solve the problem, change the rules. Until then, I'm going to do what I can to earn my paycheck at the most demanding college-basketball job in the nation. I find this kind of honesty thoroughly refreshing, particularly considering that so many other coaches take a holier-than-thou attitudes to the issue, all the while competing with Kentucky (and failing) to sign the best one-and-done recruits.
The truth is that Calipari has mastered the system more so than his competitors. We'll of course see what happens tonight , but he clearly has the best basketball team in the nation this year, and I do expect Kentucky to bring home the hardware. And I'll have to admit that this team has been more likeable than many of Calipari's past teams; it plays more disciplined ball, and its players aren't punks like DeMarcus Cousins. At any rate, I really hope Frank Martin, another coach with strong AAU ties, is taking notes.