NCAA ruling a hit on Calipari's reputation and UK's

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 21, 2009 

A public relations man (Tom Harris) for Lee Todd said that the Kentucky president viewed the news Thursday that John Calipari had become the first coach in college basketball history to have Final Four trips at two different schools vacated by the NCAA as "not a University of Kentucky issue."

As that old saying goes, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

The news that the 2008 Memphis NCAA title game appearance has joined the 1996 Massachusetts Final Four run in being vacated due to NCAA rules violations is a massive blow to the reputation of Calipari, the head coach of both teams.

Even in the ethics- challenged strata of big-time college basketball, vacating Final Four trips at multiple schools is quite a scarlet letter. Barring a successful Memphis appeal, that is the stigma Cal will bear.

Calipari's career is a prime case study between "named accountability" and "actual accountability."

When his star player at UMass, Marcus Camby, was found to be on the payroll of would-be agents, Calipari was not personally implicated by the NCAA.

Nor is the coach mentioned in the NCAA report on Memphis, which centered on the allegation that prized recruit Derrick Rose cheated on an SAT exam. That meant Rose was ineligible while leading the Tigers to the national championship game.

So let the Calipari quandary commence.

Is it part of the job of the head coach to keep agents away from his star players? Is it part of the job of the head coach to identify and steer clear of people in recruiting who are capable of perpetrating academic fraud to get a player eligible?

Ultimately, isn't the best way to accurately judge a head coach's commitment to rules compliance based on what happens to the programs he runs?

Cal is now batting 0-for-2 in the category of keeping his programs out of NCAA trouble.

To think that the reputation of the University of Kentucky is not affected by news that Calipari has vacated two Final Fours is silly.

For decades, the more thoughtful elements among the UK basketball fan base have longed to see Kentucky basketball perceived nationally in the way the programs at North Carolina and Duke are.

Whatever the reality on Tobacco Road is, the national perception of Duke and UNC is that they win big and do it above board.

In hiring Calipari only months before he vacated his second Final Four trip, UK is now more apt to have its name linked with Jerry Tarkanian-era UNLV and Steve Fisher-era Michigan.

That's not exactly the image Kentucky was expected (at least by me) to project when Todd came into office amid the Hal Mumme era football scandal vowing that clean programs would be Job One for UK sports.

As I noted when the Memphis NCAA allegations first broke publicly, the Kentucky president has staked his own reputation on Calipari's.

Already, Todd and the rest of us have gotten a stark view of the two-sided coin that having Calipari at Kentucky is.

I've never seen a coach, including Rick Pitino, come close to handling the public relations aspects of the Kentucky basketball job as well as Calipari has in his first few months. Cal has brought the energy of six men to promoting UK basketball.

On the recruiting trails, he clearly has access to the kind of high-level talent that Kentucky, for whatever reason, had stopped consistently getting in recent years.

But with Calipari there's always enough smoke blowing around his operation to make the prudent wonder.

The specter of Worldwide Wes, the mysterious basketball power broker William Wesley, lurks behind Calipari's recruiting.

When you are the university that hired the coach who became the first ever to vacate Final Four trips at two different schools, it says something about the values and standards of your institution.

Which is why Cal's daily double of vacated Final Fours is very much a University of Kentucky issue.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or 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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