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Hefferon: Calipari’s actions divide hoops fans (Nov. 28)

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

This might not be becoming of an upstanding, law-abiding schoolboy at a Catholic university, but I think one of the best things about sports is that it allows us, in a socially acceptable fashion, to hate people we’ve never met. There are cheaters, bums, goats, sleazeballs – and players, coaches and owners we just plain don’t like.

Personally, I can rattle off Jerry Jones, Rick Pitino, Sidney Crosby, Lane Kiffin, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Romo, Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Busch, Cristiano Ronaldo and – as of last weekend – Max Wittek as people I genuinely enjoy watching fail in their athletic pursuits. This stink is usually something you can’t shake off, and only declines after the subject’s glorious fade into obscurity (see Thabeet, Hasheem).

But one of that list’s former residents has managed to call my unshakable disgust into question – a moral dilemma that calls for a quick solution, seeing as he’ll be visiting Purcell Pavilion tomorrow night.

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari once drew my ire as the worst of college athletics, a coach who cared nothing for the first two syllables of “student-athlete” or, for that matter, “fair play”.

Calipari was a young shooting star in the coaching world, taking both UMass and Memphis to Final Fours before having those appearances vacated due to rules violations. In fact, the only record that he may still hold is for having the most vacated records.

Still, Calipari managed to escape those violations at every turn, leaving behind investigated programs for greener pastures – and a greener wallet. Three seasons ago, he leapfrogged from Memphis to the nation’s premier job at Kentucky, where he makes over $5 million a year, more than Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and North Carolina’s Roy Williams combined.

Calipari has taken full advantage of the NBA’s new rule requiring one year of college before high schoolers can be drafted, building a powerhouse based on elite “one-and-done” rentals.
 Of the 15 Kentucky players drafted in his three years in Lexington, only three left with degrees, and only two stuck around long enough for their own Senior Night.

And the worst part is it’s working. Coach Cal has won an average of 34 games a year at Kentucky, and is the defending national champion. But winning games hasn’t been how Calipari has defined success.

The Wildcats have now won eight national championships, but it was having five players taken in the first round of the 2010 draft that Calipari said was “the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history.”

As Calipari said after this year’s draft, the first to ever see six teammates taken in two rounds: “We’re trying to hang banners and compete for championships every year, but in a players-first program, it’s about helping those young men pursue their dreams and helping them create new lives for their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and their sisters.”

And to a point, you certainly have to respect his goals. Across our country, we have college graduates who can’t find jobs, with many experts pointing to an increased need for trade schools and job training and insisting that not everyone needs a liberal arts education. Coach Cal has basically started an NBA trade school, honing his players skills and helping them fulfill their one year “job training” phase before becoming professionals.

Calipari’s philosophy certainly isn’t good for the competitive balance of college basketball. It totally flies in the face of the NCAA’s ideal of the “student-athlete.” And it leaves his players with no degrees – only height and washed-up fame – to fall back on after playing careers that are often far too short.

But you have to hand it to him: playing a year at Kentucky is practically an express ticket to the pros, as every starter and sixth man that’s played for Calipari there has been picked in the draft. And for his 15 drafted players and their families, that’s a financial windfall and a dream come true.

I’ll still be booing Calipari louder than anybody when his Wildcats run out onto the floor tomorrow, and you certainly don’t have to like him, or what he’s done to college sports.

But I don’t think you can hate it, either.

   Contact Jack Hefferon at
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The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.