Mark Story: Calipari's latest critics have weak case

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 24, 2012 

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UK head coach John Calipari acknowledges the crowd after exiting the bus at the Championship celebration, April 03, 2012 in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

HERALD-LEADER

I'm always thinking that the only thing that can save big-time college sports from collapsing beneath its excesses is if the academic sides of universities rise up and assert control of athletics.

Unfortunately, that tends to sound better in theory than in action.

On Wednesday, a national faculty group called the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a denunciation of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari for being a leading agent in the professionalizing of college athletics.

Cal's sin? Not the mass use of one-and-done players. Not his $4 million-plus salary. Not even his two vacated Final Fours.

Nope, what had a group that is comprised of faculty senate members from FBS schools agitated was Calipari's having come out in favor of playing some non-conference games at neutral sites.

To which one response seems appropriate: Oh, c'mon.

There are significant, systemic issues creating the hyper-commercialization of big-time college athletics — billion-dollar TV contracts; TV-driven conference realignment; an ever-escalating arms race in both facilities and coaching salaries. On that list, playing games at neutral sites is a minuscule concern.

This spring's basketball scheduling impasse between Kentucky (wanted neutral sites) and Indiana (home-and-home) has brought the issue of off-campus vs. on-campus sporting events to the fore.

In that dispute, I'll say again that both schools — specifically, the two head coaches — are equally to blame for not compromising to preserve something special.

Yet for all the attention Kentucky's stance in favor of off-campus sites has gotten, UK is hardly the only big-time sports program that plays marquee games at neutral venues.

In the past men's basketball season, North Carolina and Michigan State played on a U.S. Naval aircraft carrier docked off the coast of San Diego. The president of the United States attended the game. I'm guessing that enhanced the college experience for the kids who got to participate.

Duke played not one but two games (Michigan State and Washington) this past season in Madison Square Garden. The year before, the Men of (Coach) K played Butler in The Meadowlands. Duke plays such games regularly, in part, because it has a massive alumni presence in New York and New Jersey.

It's not just basketball, either. Florida and Georgia play football annually in Jacksonville. Texas and Oklahoma play every year at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Kansas and Missouri were ending their football seasons facing off in Kansas City (though that will end with Mizzou's move to the SEC).

There is tradition in college sports for taking rivalries to neutral sites, splitting the tickets 50-50 and then basking in the electric atmosphere that can result.

From 1991-92 through 2005-06, that was the underlying premise of the Kentucky-Indiana basketball series, which alternated between Indianapolis and Louisville.

Interestingly, that great champion of on-campus basketball, IU, just renewed its participation in the Crossroads Classic, a double-header in Indianapolis with Butler, Purdue and Notre Dame.

Apparently, Tom Crean can play a rival off-campus — just not UK.

Kentucky has literally been playing neutral-site basketball games since Adolph Rupp was a young coach. In the early 1930s, the Cats faced Marshall in Ashland and Vanderbilt in Paducah.

Early in the Joe B. Hall era, Kentucky played many of its biggest non-league foes — North Carolina, Indiana, Notre Dame — in Louisville's Freedom Hall.

For most of Tubby Smith's coaching tenure at UK, the Wildcats played annual games in both Louisville and Cincinnati. The reason, in part, was to make Kentucky basketball available to fans in parts of the commonwealth who couldn't easily see the Cats play in Lexington.

The COIA to the contrary, the scheduling philosophy Calipari has outlined this off-season — playing some big non-conference games in domed stadiums as a means of preparing to compete in such venues in the NCAA Tournament — is similar to the way Rick Pitino scheduled Kentucky basketball in the 1990s.

There is nothing wrong about a school playing a few college basketball games each season in a non-campus setting.

So if the goal is to save the "collegiate model of sports," the academic types are going to have to raise their game dramatically from carping about playing at neutral sites.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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