If Kentucky wins the NCAA men’s basketball title Monday night, as most expect, John Calipari, known as Coach Vacate, his ways will not be validated. Too late for that.
Win or lose against Kansas, he already has been validated. That day in August 2009 in Lexington when he signed a $31.65 million contract for eight years was all the validation required.
Despite the fact that two schools he coached to the Final Four subsequently had their seasons vacated (Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008) for NCAA rules violations, there was no impediment to his re-hire. The NCAA infractions committee thought enough of the violations to sanction the schools after he left, but not the man in charge of the basketball program.
The more current contempt of Calipari, led in part by retired coach and full-time crank Bob Knight, revolves around his ruthlessly effective exploitation of the one-and-done rule, where he recruits players for what is a seven-month internship in college that is mandatory for the pro game. The criticism is misplaced.
As Calipari put it himself Sunday when addressing reporters in New Orleans prior to the title game, “I don’t apologize — it’s not my rule. 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.”
He’s right. If he recruits lesser players, he gets fired. If he recruits NBA-caliber players, he wins. All he’s doing is working harder and faster than anyone else in mining resources for renewing annually his hoops factory.
The current system of a mandatory year in college has been around basketball for six years, long ago enough that most of us have forgotten why it was created: To save the NBA the time, trouble, money and the embarrassment of having to scout high school games.
Any notion that a year in school would give kids a chance to better themselves is as specious as claiming the presence of weapons of mass destruction was a real reason for invading Iraq. It’s a pretense, a canard, a fig leaf. Many talented athletes today are no more inclined to go to school now that they were 50 years ago when decent livings began to be made in pro ball.
But when players went straight to the pros from high school, colleges were being denied money-making entertainers, and the NBA was being annoyed at having to drive to Saint Bejeezus High in East ‘Hood. In collusion with the players’ association, which also didn’t want to deal with prepsters, the NBA and the colleges agreed on a one-year workaround in hopes nobody who cared had a lawyer and would notice.
So far, so good. Except for the kids themselves. But they rarely have been a priority in the big-time business of college sports.
At least the rule did no damage to Terrence Ross, Washington’s leading scorer who announced Sunday, to the surprise of no one who watched him, that he was going pro. He grew into the job physically and emotionally in the past year, and is ready.
“I wasn’t ready out of high school,” said Ross, of Portland. “I got a range of information, including from the league committee (on draft eligible players). I heard a lot of things — top 10, lottery, end of the first round. Any time you have a chance to go in the first round, you should take it.”
Speaking practically, this was Ross’s first real shot at the NBA, and he’s taking it. The problem with a single year for any is that there is minimal incentive to do what colleges minimally hoped — engage in the charade of academic pursuit. In by September, out by March, before the professors catch up — should there be professors still sufficiently naive to believe the tall kid in the back really cares about Chaucer.
But someone like Ross who stays for a second year at least has the opportunity to stay academically eligible, which may pay off in ways unmeasurable now. The one-and-dones are just feeding the cynicism machine.
The NBA and colleges need to establish a two-year minimum, or go back to zero. Yes, a two-year minimum invites a restraint-of-trade lawsuit, but what doesn’t invite a lawsuit these days? And zero is at least honest, if inconvenient.
Meantime, Calipari gets filleted for something out of his control, rather than punished for what happened during his tenure at UMass and Memphis. As the ultimate corner-cutter on rules and ethics, Calipari provides for the high and mighty in college athletics much from which to choose to criticize. But not one-and-done. That’s like getting mad at the jockey for a mistake in the breeding shed.
Mark Emmert, now president of the NCAA, has been around big-time athletics at LSU and Washington, yet he sounds like a turnip-truck refugee when he says things like this:
“The one-and-done rule . . . forces young men to go to college that have little or no interest in going to college,” he said. “It makes a travesty of the whole notion of student as an athlete.”
Young men with little or no interest in going to college have been going to college to play sports for more than a hundred years. Maybe the best thing about one-and-done is that it sheds such harsh light that even the dimmest may see.
Two years or nothing for college hoops. Anything less is half-assed.