By now you know the pattern. John Calipari establishes himself at a university, assembles a winning team, allows NCAA noncompliance to occur, and subsequently abandons the program before he has to face repercussions from the NCAA. It happened at UMass in 1996 and it happened again at Memphis in 2008. In both cases, Calipari avoided sanctions unscathed for greener pastures as the programs he left behind were forced to face the consequences without him.
If slyly avoiding repercussions wasn’t enough for typical college basketball fans to hate him, the idea of Calipari professionalizing the sport is. After all, Calipari – for the fifth straight season – has managed to haul in a top recruiting class with at least one star recruit leaving the program after a single season under the coach’s tutelage without so much as considering staying in college to earn a degree.
Despite these facts, I trust John Calipari. Not because I think he is completely innocent for his non-compliances with NCAA rules. Not because he is the coach I would send my son to if I wanted to see my son graduate. And most certainly not because I believe his philosophy of reassembling his teams on a yearly basis provides good morals for the sport. No, I trust John Calipari because when it comes to coaching, few are better at developing players on the court while ensuring better lives for those players off of it.
Take Calipari’s situation with Dajuan Wagner as a primary example. Wagner, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2001, was the first superstar to pair up with Calipari in nearly a decade. With Wagner, Memphis won twenty-seven games and looked poised for a deep tournament run if Wagner would return for his sophomore campaign. Still, Calipari revoked Wagner’s scholarship for his sophomore season because Wagner had been wavering on whether to declare for the NBA Draft or to return to school. Calipari knew it was best for his star to enter the draft and make millions of dollars while his stock was at an all-time high. By taking the decision out of his player’s hands, Calipari’s foresight salvaged Wagner’s career. The sixth overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft was discovered to suffer from ulcerative colitis just two seasons into his NBA career. Had Calipari not forced Wagner to take the riches of the NBA, Wagner’s illness likely would have been discovered before he ever earned millions.
Regardless of Wagner’s departure setting his program back several years, Calipari made the decision that was best for his star -a true sign of selflessness.
On top of Calipari’s genuine compassion for his players, tangible evidence suggests Calipari’s coaching positively impacts his players’ chances of making more money in the NBA. As proof, compare the career trajectories of Latavious Williams and Daniel Orton.
Williams, 6’8”, was the seventeenth overall recruit from high school in 2009. He considered offers from the likes of Memphis, Georgetown, and UConn before ultimately turning down college altogether for the NBA’s Developmental League. As the first high school player to go straight to the D-League, Williams earned a quick $19,000 and avoided having to take summer classes in order to comply with NCAA eligibility. Over the course of the season, Williams developed physically and grew into a productive starter for a team that reached the D-League finals.
Despite his successes in the D-League, Williams ended up slipping in the NBA Draft all the way to 48th overall as teams were scared off by the lack of certainty as to how his minor league production would actually translate in the NBA. Williams failed to receive a roster invitation to any NBA team for the 2010-2011 season. He now plays in Spain as he awaits an opportunity to prove his NBA worth. He never received and probably never will receive the big NBA contract he had hoped for.
Conversely, Orton, 6’10”, was the twenty-second overall recruit out of high school in 2009. Orton committed to Kentucky and ended up toiling on the bench for Calipari as he was outshined by the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. In 38 games for Kentucky, Orton played more than twenty minutes only once. After one season, Orton’s career averages hovered just above three points and three rebounds per game. Despite his uninspiring numbers and lack of a consistent role on the team, Orton still gained nationwide visibility playing under Calipari.
When the 2010 NBA Draft came, Orton was still highly prized as NBA scouts ignored his extremely limited resume. The Orlando Magic selected him at the end of the first round. As a first round pick, Orton was assured over three million dollars over the span of his rookie contract. After two full seasons with an NBA contract, Orton has struggled with durability. As of April 1st, 2012, almost two full years after being drafted, he has played a grand total of thirteen minutes in the NBA.
Despite sitting on the bench and failing to display clear progress in his only college season, Orton used the influence of John Calipari to sell himself as a raw prospect oozing with potential.
Had Orton followed a similar career path to Williams, it is unlikely NBA scouts would have been so willing to excuse his lack of production.
On the contrary, had Williams followed a career path similar to Orton, it is likely he would have gained nationwide attention and eventually would have been selected as a first round pick in the draft.
So why is Calipari the villain of college basketball? He wasn’t the coach of an elite program who wrongfully accused two men of being opportunistic liars after they revealed his assistant sexually abused them for several years as children. Calipari is also not the coach at an elite program who allowed his star player to get away with intentionally injuring reserve teammates in practice because he was “producing” in the actual games.
Calipari is simply the coach who consistently produces entertaining teams. Entertaining teams that college basketball fans love to watch for their undeniable talent yet love to hate for their impermanence in a sport pillared by lasting legacies.
If the NCAA’s mission is to have coaches mature players into better talents and overall human beings over their time in college, John Calipari –regardless of having his best players leave after a single season – should be applauded for consistently succeeding in this goal. After all, Derrick Rose’s humility and unparalleled athleticism make him perfect poster-child for the NBA today.
As for why top recruits are naturally lured to Lexington, it may have to do with the unique relationship between the fans of Kentucky and its players. Both parties have a mutual understanding that the stars will likely only play there for one year.
Bitter divorces between Duke fans and Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers highlight the fact that not every program is as accommodating to these one-and-done players. Duke fans held unfair expectations from their top recruits; Irving was the consensus number one pick in the draft yet still received flack from Dukies as they felt he had failed to fulfill his duties as a Blue Devil.
For those who complain that Calipari is unfairly monopolizing the college game, it is important to note that going to college for only one year is a choice – not a requirement. Brandon Jenning, Jeremy Tyler, and Williams have all slighted the NCAA for immediate money playing professionally as they awaited NBA eligibility.
Calipari is also far from the only coach to recruit top players who planned on entering the draft upon eligibility. Just look at the final four teams remaining from this season…
Ohio State has lost the likes of Greg Oden and Kosta Koufos to the one-and-done just as Kansas lost Xavier Henry and Josh Selby in consecutive seasons in Lawrence.
Rick Pitino signed Samardo Samuels in 2008 knowing full-well Samuels would likely leave for the NBA after his freshman year. Fortunately for Pitino, Samuels decided to return for his sophomore season after NBA scouts informed him he would likely go undrafted if he left school. After a second season under Pitino, however, Samuels decided to enter the draft against the advice of scouts and coaches. (He wound up unselected).
John Calipari should not be considered the villain. Fans at UMass and Memphis will argue that his negligence resulted in sanctions for their programs. In reality, though, these same fans will remember Calipari more for putting their programs onto the map and bringing each institution to the Final Four than for leaving the programs for more lucrative offers upon impending sanctions.
After years of skepticism that he could build a championship team made up of a core of freshmen, Calipari find himself one game away from silencing his critics once and for all. For Calipari, beating Kansas on Monday – the team that miraculously came back to end his 2008 Memphis Tiger team’s historic season – would be a fitting last hurdle to jump in his pursuit of college basketball immortality.
Jacob Eisenberg writes for The Fan Manifesto. He can be followed on Twitter @Eisenberg43. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The entire FanMan team can be followed on Twitter at @TheFanManifesto, or liked on Facebook by clicking here.
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