Freshly minted Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
First at UMass, and now Memphis, Calipari walked out on programs ahead of allegations of major NCAA violations. Also coincidentally, both cases involved the best players he ever coached.
At UMass, it was Marcus Camby, who left for the NBA after his junior season in 1996 and later admitted he’d accepted money, jewelry, rental cars and prostitutes supplied by two agents while he was still in school. The NCAA vacated the Minutemen’s Final Four appearance, but not before Calipari had vacated the premises for the greener pastures of the NBA.
At Memphis, the player in question was almost certainly Derrick Rose, who left after his freshman year and justified most of the hype during a sometimes-spectacular rookie season with the Chicago Bulls. Though Rose wasn’t identified in a letter from the NCAA to the school alleging that someone took the SAT for a player who only played on the 2007-08 team, he was the only member of that Final Four squad who played just that one season.
Like UMass, Memphis is facing the possibility that the NCAA will decide to erase what arguably had been its finest performance to date. And just like at UMass, where he was cleared of any involvement with the mess, Calipari won’t be around to find out how things turn out.
He skipped town in April for an eight-year, $31.65-million, perks-laden deal at Kentucky that made him the highest-paid college basketball coach in the land. Such is the state of the game, of course, that what happened to Calipari could happen to anybody.
Not the part about the stratospheric pay package, because only a handful of his colleagues could demand that kind of money with a straight face. Instead, we’re talking about kids taking money under the table from agents or having a pal take their entrance or course exams without too many people being any the wiser.
The first sin has been occurring since “sports agent” became a job description, the second since the NCAA drew up rules about athletes’ eligibility. Whether kids cheat more now than in the past remains anyone’s guess. What isn’t in doubt, though, is how much more money is at stake. The people at Kentucky who hired Calipari just two months ago hardly need reminding of that.
On Wednesday, Billy Gillispie, the coach Kentucky hired two years ago — after considering Calipari, according to reports at the time — sued the school claiming breach of contract and asked for at least $6 million in pay, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and court costs. Kentucky countersued Thursday, even while it waged a counteroffensive on another front, rebuffing critics who suggested they hadn’t performed due diligence in hiring Calipari.
In a statement, Kentucky said it knew all along that Memphis might face violations because Calipari was “forthcoming” during the interview process about “issues under investigation” at his old school.
Hard to say whether that bit of diligence made Calipari’s hiring more cynical than it originally seemed. Either way, it helped explain why Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart made a point of boasting at the time about how his own “compliance folks talked with the NCAA and checked records and facts” relating to Calipari, and how people at the highest levels of that organization “assured us how much they enjoyed working with John in that process.”
Calipari can be charming when he wants, as evidenced by his bank account and the steady stream of talented recruits who flow to wherever he sets up shop. On short notice, he’s already assembled in Lexington what some scouts consider the best freshman class in the past decade, including John Wall, the consensus No. 1 prep point guard in the nation.
Wall pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge of breaking and entering, and entered a program for first offenders that could eventually clear his record. The charge came about after police in Wall’s hometown of Raleigh, N.C., found him walking out of a vacant house, apparently little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And as Calipari can attest, it can happen to anyone.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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