Mark Story: Todd carrying Calipari's baggage

mstory@herald-leader.com,Mark StoryMay 29, 2009 

An open letter to University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr.:

Re: The recent hiring by UK of a head men's basketball coach whose former program now stands alleged of major NCAA violations.

Well that didn't take long, did it Dr. Todd?

Exactly 56 days after you introduced John Calipari as Kentucky coach on April Fool's Day, it became public that the NCAA is charging Cal's former school, Memphis, with major violations including academic fraud.

Now you, Dr. Todd, as president of one of the most penalized schools in NCAA history, have hired a coach who may soon have Final Four trips from two different schools "vacated" due to rules infractions on his watch.

That would be a proud entry on the legacy of a university president, wouldn't it?

It's painful to watch a president I've always thought of as well-meaning and honest and who came into office preaching "reform" of a scandal-plagued UK athletics department now reduced to shamelessly operating in spin mode.

When the allegations against Memphis broke early Wednesday evening, Kentucky found itself with two public relations options.

Essentially, Dr. Todd, you and Mitch Barnhart either had to admit you blew yet another background check on a major coaching hire (see Gillispie, Billy Clyde) or say that you knew about allegations that included academic fraud but did not consider that a deal breaker.

In a terse four paragraph statement issued at 11:47 p.m. Wednesday, UK chose the latter course.

For a university president, Dr. Todd, that can't be comfortable ground upon which to stand.

UK and its spinners are hanging their "defense" of their new head coach on the fact that Calipari is not personally named by the NCAA in the allegations that apparently involve his signature player at Memphis, Derrick Rose.

Of course, Calipari was not "named" when his signature player at Massachusetts, Marcus Camby, was found to be on the payroll of an agent during his college playing days under Cal.

Unless one is "Kelvin Sampson dumb," in big-time college sports the head coaches are never "named." They're better at maintaining plausible deniability than the CIA.

If not being personally "named" absolved a head coach of the responsibility for major rule-breaking within their programs, Eddie Sutton would still be the basketball coach at Kentucky and Hal Mumme would still walk the sidelines at Commonwealth Stadium.

I believe the captain is responsible for the ship.

The thing is, Dr. Todd, you are the one who stands to be the biggest loser in this scenario.

Everyone who follows college basketball closely has long known who John Calipari is. He's spent his career with his programs driving 95 mph through the gray areas.

Even if the Memphis allegations are proven true, his reputation stays the same.

Everyone who has followed Kentucky athletics closely since 2002 has long since figured out that major coaching hires (and background checks) are not exactly Mitch Barnhart's strength.

Even if the Calipari hire blows up in the Kentucky athletics director's face, even if Barnhart loses his job, his reputation basically stays the same.

No, Dr. Todd, you are the one with your name at risk. You are the one who used to say the first goal for Kentucky sports was to be "clean, then hopefully competitive."

Yet after four straight mediocre UK seasons created an atmosphere of desperation among stakeholders in Kentucky basketball, you went AWOL.

It was the responsibility of the university president to stand up to the boosters, the former players and the win-at-all-costs fans and say "there are some risks not worth taking."

Instead, Dr. Todd, you chose to dance with the, well, Calipari.

Now the storm has begun.

Alleged scandals like the one in Memphis tend to produce a "drip, drip, drip" of new accusations. You think there aren't some Memphis backers, feeling jilted by Calipari's departure, who may not have their tongues loosened?

Furthermore, Dr. Todd, you better hope that Calipari's recruitment of mega-prospects John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins — which began on Memphis' recruiting budget and ended with signatures on Kentucky letters of intent — was on the up-and-up.

Every media outlet with an investigative capacity has incentive now to take a fresh look at how Calipari's program was operating.

So does the NCAA.

For 55 days, Dr. Todd, you basked in the positives that came from hiring John Calipari. The coach's public relations magic, his boundless energy, his big-picture vision for what Kentucky basketball can be.

On the 56th day, you found out exactly what the other side of being associated with Calipari is like.

You better get ready, Dr. Todd. Your sleepless nights have just begun.

Reach Mark Story at 231-3230 or (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3230, or at mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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