Company Calipari keeps in question

Memphis columnist says program is full of 'scoundrels'

jtipton@herald-leader.comMay 30, 2009 

William Wesley, an enigmatic figure believed to wield a mysterious influence in recruiting circles, stood in the Memphis team picture when the Tigers won a regional finals to advance to the 2008 Final Four.

Geoff Calkins, a columnist for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, recalled that scene Friday when asked about a stinging comment he made earlier in the day about John Calipari.

"John runs programs where scoundrels have the run of the place," Calkins said on ESPN's Outside the Lines.

When asked in a follow-up telephone interview about the comment, Calkins said, "This goes back to the complexity of John. One of the great things about John is he runs this incredibly open program. Everybody is welcomed into the gym.

"There were literally priests here (and) kids getting chemotherapy watching practice. And there would be the developer charged with bribery of an official there."

Calkins' appearance came on an Outside the Lines program devoted to college basketball and, in particular, this week's news that the NCAA had alleged Calipari's Memphis program committed major rules violations during the 2007-08 season. The charges involved academic fraud on a college entrance exam and the improper payment of $2,260 in travel expenses for an associate of a player. In each instance, the player was reportedly star freshman Derrick Rose.

Calipari was not named in the NCAA notice of allegations, which Memphis received on Jan. 16. He subsequently received a letter from the NCAA dated April 27 advising him that he was not considered "at risk" in the ongoing investigation. The NCAA asked him to appear at a hearing on the allegations before the Committee on Infractions June 6.

Calkins linked the openness of Calipari's program to the allegation of a person outside the official party having a seat on the chartered plane or a room at the team hotel.

"None of this is particularly shocking at all," Calkins said. "But it's not just scoundrels. It's some of the highest and mightiest of Memphis."

Calkins recalled a Memphis area developer in line at the end of the Memphis home game shaking hands with the opponents.

"If you're a friend of John's, you can sort of do whatever you want," Calkins said.

Calipari, who conducted an interview on Wednesday from Destin, Fla., for the ESPN program, suggested that the NCAA allegations were a byproduct of success.

"The higher you climb, the more they're taking shots at you," he told ESPN basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes. "It's the price you pay for the space you occupy."

Calkins did not accept that argument.

"I don't think people are going after Roy Williams," the columnist said of the North Carolina coach. "I don't think people go after Mike Krzyzewski (of Duke). I don't think people go after Tom Izzo (of Michigan State), and he's as high-flying a college basketball coach as there's been in recent years."

Calipari's brushes with NCAA justice are well chronicled. Most famously, his Massachusetts team had to vacate an appearance in the 1996 Final Four after star center Marcus Camby acknowledged receiving money from an agent while playing for the Minutemen.

Questions about Calipari's methods surfaced locally this spring when Kentucky quickly zeroed in on him as the successor to the fired Billy Gillispie.

Calipari said his record could stand the scrutiny.

"Everywhere I coach, the fans, the administration, they know I'm about the school," he said. "Kentucky is on the path to be a top-20 university in the country. ...

"People who know us don't need to hear anything. The people who don't know us or maybe don't like us, they're not going to hear my explanation. They don't care. And you know what? I don't care."

To Calkins' ears, this sounded familiar.

"Part of John's deal is he demonizes critics," the columnist said. "Anybody who has anything negative to say, he demonizes them."

At Memphis, Calipari called critics "The Miserables."

Calkins said it was "simplistic" to divide the college basketball world into good guys and bad guys.

"The fact is there's a lot of people in the world who have mixed feelings about John," he said. "So I think it's simplistic to say the higher you go, the more shots you take. Because I can name people pretty darn high who don't have the reputation John has."

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