The NCAA's step last week toward relaxing rules about food for athletes validated one of Kentucky Coach John Calipari's long-standing objections to how college sports are governed. It perhaps also signaled a significant shift in emphasis: away from seeking the metaphorical level playing field and toward trying to meet the needs of athletes.
And, maybe most interestingly, it shed light on how food — food? — can become an issue.
David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University, recalled working earlier in his career as a compliance officer at Division I schools.
"I spent 20 percent of my time on food violations," he said. "To me, it's just ridiculous. Somebody getting a sandwich they shouldn't. Some booster buying somebody a hot dog. It got so mind-boggling. It seemed at times routine to me. When I look back and think about it, it was insane. Why are we trying to track this? It's something that can't be regulated."
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Calipari, who got great mileage out of how the NCAA rules pick a nit between a permissible snack (a bagel) and an impermissible meal (a bagel with cream cheese), hit on the reason. The NCAA's road to nutritional justice was paved with good intentions. Because smaller schools with smaller budgets cannot afford to feed their athletes as well and as often as bigger schools with bigger budgets, the rules put the basic in basic food groups.
"They can't do that, so you can't do it," Calipari said in summing up the rationale succinctly.
"That has to end."
The process toward ending the one-rule-for-all ethos, beginning with food and continuing into uncharted territory, continued last week when the NCAA Legislative Council voted to allow schools the right to feed its athletes an unlimited amount. For the change to become effective, the Division I Board of Directors must give its OK at a meeting on Thursday.
Morehead State Director of Athletics Brian Hutchinson voiced support for feeding athletes adequately. That became a public issue when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier said at the Final Four that he had gone to bed "starving."
Another idea voiced by Calipari and many others figures to be a thornier problem to solve. The big-time programs want to pay a stipend to players. Say, between $3,000 and $5,000 per school year, Calipari said.
Questions remaining unanswered include which athletes get paid (only those in the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball?) and whether so-called mid-major programs can afford to pay their athletes.
"I don't know if that's a going-out-of-business plan for us," Hutchinson said of the stipend idea.
The possibility of prosperous schools like UK moving onward and, presumably, upward while the playing field tilts ever steeper against lesser lights brought an immediate reaction from Ridpath. He shrugged.
"The best players are going to go to the best schools under any situation," he said. "A player recruited by Ohio State and Ohio, if he wants to play at the highest level of football, he's going to play for Ohio State. There's always going to be that separation."
The competition involves many playing fields, some literal and some figurative.
"There's certain things we do at Ohio that Ohio State can't do," Ridpath said. "We have a much better journalism and communications school. Ohio State and Kentucky have made a commitment to be good in athletics, and they should be able to treat their athletes as well as they want to, and not have that restricted by Ohio or Marshall."
Rush to judgment
During the Integrity in Sports discussion at Belmont University last week, UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart lamented the pace of decision-making in college athletics.
New coaches used to have five to seven years to establish themselves and their method of operation, he said. Athletic directors, fans and media types were content to wait that long before judging a coaching hire a success or failure.
"We sped it up ...," Barnhart said to the audience at Belmont. "I don't know how we get out of it."
Judgments now come after two seasons. "According to the talking heads," Barnhart said.
As there's a rush to judge coaches, so, too, do athletic directors feel pressure to make quick decisions on hirings.
Barnhart acknowledged that he has less than a perfect record in hiring coaches.
"I have failed," he said. "We have all made mistakes. The process happens extremely fast."
The speculation about John Calipari going to the Lakers, which he's denied repeatedly and convincingly, reminds everyone that someday Kentucky will hire a new coach.
It's not as easy as it looks, Barnhart said.
"Let's say there's an opening at Kentucky basketball," he said at Belmont. "One thing they always say: You can hire anybody you want.
"Really!" he added, borrowing a rhetorical device from Calipari. "Really."
Barnhart then did the math for the audience.
There are 350 Division I coaches.
"You can get down to a list of 20 who will be accepted by the media, fans, players," he said.
Ten will not be interested in the UK job and/or leaving their present position, Barnhart said. Of the remaining 10, maybe five do not seem ready for a job like Kentucky's.
"You're down to five," he said. "You're on the clock. You've got nine days. Two weeks, at best."
If the UK search goes longer than two weeks?
"Then it's considered a total failure," Barnhart said. "Or you've lost a recruiting class."
Barnhart made no secret of his desire to avoid a coaching search anytime soon.
"We have maybe the best set of head coaches at our place in my career," he said. "I don't want to lose any of them."
The more John Calipari explained last week why UK fouled only once in the final 54 seconds against UConn, the less convinced a Basketball Bennie (blush) became that he did the right thing.
To review: James Young's driving layup with 1:08 left reduced Kentucky's deficit to 58-54. UK had committed five team fouls in the second half, so it would take two more fouls to send UConn to the foul line to shoot a one-and-one.
Aaron Harrison committed the sixth foul with 54.1 seconds left. That reset the shot clock to 35 seconds. Calipari called a 30-second timeout to set the strategy.
UK chose not to foul again apparently in hopes of getting the ball back still trailing by four, but probably with no more than about 20 seconds left.
Calipari did not wait for a question in the post-game news conference to explain why Kentucky did not lengthen the game by fouling and sending UConn to the line. "Because they didn't miss any free throws," he said.
UConn made 10 of 10 free throws, the final two by Lasan Kromah, who was fouled by Alex Poythress, which prevented a layup, with 25 seconds left. This season the Huskies ranked fourth nationally in free-throw accuracy (77.7 percent).
But only two nights earlier, Wisconsin had made 18 of 18 free throws until Traevon Jackson missed with 16.4 seconds left. The miss helped Kentucky rally to a victory.
And even if UConn makes free throws, Kentucky can catch up by making three-point shots. Harrison made clutch three-pointers to help win UK's previous three NCAA Tournament games. Young made six of 11 three-point shots in UK's last three NCAA Tournament games.
As it was, Kromah's two free throws put UConn ahead 60-54 with 25 seconds left and sent UK into panic mode.
Kentucky would have fouled had the deficit dwindled to less than four points, Calipari told Jim Rome.
Calipari acknowledged how the decision not to foul was ripe for second guessing. If UK won, he's a genius. If UK lost?
"What the hell were you thinking?" said Calipari, who then added a philosophical shrug. "That's just coaching."
Last week saw John Calipari throw several jabs at one of his favorite punching bags: the NCAA. He reared back for a haymaker when he said the NCAA nixed the idea he and his wife, Ellen, had to start an education fund. The children of his former players could use this fund to further their education.
The NCAA considered it an extra benefit, therefore not permissible, Calipari said with a can-you-believe-it tone of voice.
Of course, it's not far-fetched to think such a fund could be an advantage in recruiting. Calipari seemed to acknowledge that by saying the solution would be for 50 other top coaches to create a similar fund.
Here's another solution: Establish the fund, but make only children of non-athletes eligible to apply for grants.
Succeed, proceed ...
Dan Patrick asked John Calipari to explain what it's like to essentially start over each season with a freshman-oriented team.
"It's like you're on this treadmill that just never slows down," he said.
Favorite moment in the New York City-Bristol, Conn., portion of John Calipari's book tour last week came as he settled in as guest on the Mike Francesa show on WFAN.
The good-natured teasing quickly led to Francesa's admission that he hadn't read Calipari's new book, Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out.
"I don't like these leadership books," Francesa said.
Among the familiar names playing in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament last week were Morehead State's Chad Posthumus, Alabama guard Trevor Releford and wing Niels Giffey of UConn.
Through Friday, the stats included:
Releford making four of 16 shots in his first two games. He averaged eight points, seven assists and four turnovers.
Posthumus scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds in his first game, which was Thursday. He scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds on Friday.
Giffey made four of 12 shots Thursday. His busy day included nine points, four blocks and four steals. His 11 points on Friday included 3-for-3 shooting from three-point range.
Former Notre Dame big man Garrick Sherman averaged 18.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in his first two games.
To Ryan Harrow. He turns 23 on Tuesday. ... To Fred Cowan. He turns 56 on Wednesday. ... To Dwane Casey. He turned 57 on Thursday. ... To Doug Flynn. He turned 63 on Friday. ... To Nate Knight. He turned 36 on Friday. ... To Michael Bradley. He turned 35 on Friday. ... To Derrick Millar. He turned 46 on Friday. ... To Scott Padgett. He turned 38 on Saturday. ... To Ashley Judd. She turned 46 on Saturday.