Same questions follow Calipari again

ralessi@herald-leader.comApril 1, 2009 

Since leaving the University of Massachusetts 13 years ago with the program under NCAA investigation, John Calipari has been dogged at every stop by questions of how clean a program he runs.

Those who have worked with Calipari say he is aggressive in all aspects of coaching — particularly recruiting — but does not cross the line.

"John knows the rules and regulations of the NCAA. He knows the rules of recruiting. And if he pushes the envelope, he knows when to stop pushing it," said Howard Davis, a former UMass sports information director. "In my opinion, he will not make the next step and push the envelope off the table."

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. confirmed that university officials dug into Calipari's recruiting record and association with a man who serves as a sort of majordomo to current and aspiring basketball stars.

UK was satisfied that Calipari, who is leaving Memphis to take the UK job, is on the up-and-up, Todd said.

"We've looked into all those things," he said.

The most trouble a Calipari program has been in came at the end of his tenure at UMass in 1996. The NCAA sanctioned the school, and it forfeited its 35 wins after a probe revealed Marcus Camby, then a junior, took money and gifts from an agent, which is against the rules. David K. Scott, the former chancellor at the UMass Amherst campus for most of Calipari's tenure, said officials thoroughly vetted whether Calipari knew of any wrongdoing.

"I don't believe he did," Scott said.

By all accounts from Memphis athletic boosters and former UMass officials, Calipari is the type of hyper-focused coach who likes to be involved in all facets of the program.

"You knew right away that John was going to be in total control of his program," as Davis put it.

In the Camby case, Scott said, UMass officials were "convinced" after lengthy interviews with the staff that Calipari didn't know of the player's dealings with the agent.

"I guess things like that can happen, yes, even to a coach who's pretty on top of everything," Scott said. "I don't know how much he was dealing with the students' personal lives."

Calipari left UMass for a brief stint as an NBA coach just as the NCAA probe was heating up. Since taking the helm at Memphis in the 2000-01 season, Calipari has been haunted by similar issues.

In 2006, a Norfolk, Va.-based sports lawyer claimed he gave former Memphis player Shawne Williams nearly $50,000 in exchange for getting to represent him. The aspiring agent filed a suit against Williams — then dropped it — when the player chose someone else.

And William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, who has ties to scores of NBA, college and prep athletes, also has been associated with Memphis.

Calipari was quoted in a GQ story about Wesley saying the man is an "ambassador" to the Memphis program.

What exactly that entails is unclear. Wesley, according to reports, is skilled at connecting players with whatever they want, whether it's meeting celebrities or a stylist.

Wesley has been linked to helping Memphis land two recent star players, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans.

Todd, however, dismissed any notion that Calipari's association with Wesley is improper and said Wesley "doesn't work for just any one coach."

Harold Byrd, a Memphis banker who served as president of Memphis' Rebounders booster club, said recruiting is watched carefully and he has seen "no evidence" Calipari ever broke rules.

Byrd said he has seen Wesley at some Tigers games, including at last month's NCAA Tournament games.

"Does he have a friendship with Coach Calipari, I think, yes," Byrd said.

"It's sort of like the world of politics where, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are involved in your campaign and many people are people you'd not like to have there," Byrd said. "But they're going to be there, and you have to deal with them."

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