John Clay: 'Vacated' past makes Calipari a lightning rod for naysayers

'Vacated' focus misses grand coaching job

jclay@herald-leader.com,JohnClayMarch 31, 2011 

OK, let's get this "word" out of the way right now so we won't have to talk about it again.

That's because everyone else not wearing blue will be talking about it.

Oops, too late. They're already talking about it. No sooner had Kentucky beaten North Carolina in Newark on Sunday to earn a trip to the Final Four than the media mob started harping, and the sound wasn't so sweet.

Was this John Calipari's third trip to the Final Four, asked the party poopers, or his first?

After all, the Kentucky coach's previous two trips were — get ready — "vacated."

Stephen Colbert would call it "The Word." It's the elephant in the room, the NCAA's official scarlet stamp of disapproval. It's one of those words that needs quotation marks.

In Calipari's case, his 1996 UMass trip to the Final Four was "vacated" after it was discovered star player Marcus Camby accepted gifts from an agent. Calipari's 2008 Final Four appearance at Memphis was "vacated" after the NCAA ruled Derrick Rose ineligible when he failed to cooperate with a review service and his ACT score was invalidated.

Never mind that Calipari wasn't implicated in either case. Never mind that, at last count, 34 coaches have fallen victim to having their NCAA Tournament appearances "vacated."

Lute Olson is on that "vacated" list. Jim Valvano is on that list. So is Larry Brown, Gene Keady, Steve Lavin and, yes, Jim Calhoun.

And yet on the ramp-up to Houston you haven't heard anyone mention that Connecticut's NCAA appearance in the 1996 tournament was erased. In fact, we've barely heard much about the fact Calhoun will serve a three-game Big East suspension next year after the NCAA ruled he did not foster a culture of compliance within the UConn basketball program.

In Newark, we didn't hear a peep about the fact Kansas was placed on probation after Roy Williams left for North Carolina because, according to the NCAA, "three representatives of the university's athletic interests" provided cash and clothing to graduating players.

When San Diego State was a feel-good story for grabbing a No. 2 seed, no one talked about how Coach Steve Fisher had two Final Fours (1992 and 1993) vacated at Michigan.

Ah, but as for Calipari, the hits just keep on coming.

Example, here's John Baldoni, a blogger for Fast Company magazine: "Its current head coach John Calipari may not have written the book on cheating in college basketball but he has certainly added a footnote ... Calipari himself was not found guilty of wrongdoing, but it strains credulity to think he did not know, or chose not to know, of the rule breaking that occurred under his watch."

And Fast Company isn't even a sports publication.

Why all the cuts on Cal? He's a lightning rod. He's the type of personality that if he's coaching the other team, you're not too sure about him. If he's coaching your team, you love him. Even some Kentucky fans would have to admit to being in the former camp before he became the latter.

Now Calipari is coaching at a school that has served multiple probations and been dealt sanctions for improprieties in its basketball program — though the last probation happened more than 20 years ago. The two together, Cal plus the Cats, have formed almost a perfect storm in critics' eyes.

The unfortunate part is that the spotlight should be instead on Calipari's coaching. He's done arguably the best job of his career, taking a team that lost five first-round draft picks, that lost six of eight conference road games, that starts three freshmen on a regular basis, and nursed it to the Final Four. Not bad for a coach who supposedly just recruits.

In fact, the v-word that should be used with John Calipari this week isn't "vacated," it's "vindicated."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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