No matter what his level of culpability within the current investigation at his former school, John Calipari’s reputation always will precede him. And that bothers a faction of Kentucky fans. Only, the guess is, most of them were howling at the lack of sizzle in their favorite basketball program over the past few years.
As we try to make sense of the present by learning from the past, return with me to this date in recent history, four years ago – the summer of 2005.
Kentucky basketball fans were still mourning the double-overtime loss suffered by their beloved Wildcats back in March of ‘05, in that incredible game with Michigan State. Patrick Sparks’ three-pointer, which took, it seemed, the better part of an hour before it was ruled official, kept the Cats alive for only so long. They, and the Big Blue Nation, were denied a return trip to the Final Four.
The UK faithful also were disturbed by the news that junior Kelenna Azubuike had decided not only to make himself available for the NBA Draft, but had signed with an agent, slamming the door on any possible return.
His departure, along with that of senior power forward Chuck Hayes, would cause a ripple effect that eventually played a part in the departure of head coach Tubby Smith.
Azubuike, named second-team All-SEC that year, had been a highly-touted recruit, a McDonald’s All-American. And while the hamburger folks didn’t quite think so highly of Hayes, he had been named a Parade Magazine All-American and quickly proved he should have been on everyone’s list coming out of high school. He might have been the most respected player in the Southeastern Conference among opposing coaches.
That team also included four freshmen who comprised the nation’s top recruiting class the year prior: Randolph Morris, Rajon Rondo, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford. The future appeared bright. Little did we know.
Smith followed that glistening class by bringing in just two freshmen the following year: Jared Carter, a coveted 7-footer who never developed, and Adam Williams, a longshot promised a scholarship prior to his sophomore year of high school. He washed out quickly.
The 05-06 season was a mélange of underachievement, chemistry problems and puzzling losses as Smith tried to make the best of a front line whose veterans included Shagari Alleyne, Bobby Perry, Sheray Thomas, Lukasz Obrzut, Rekalin Sims (for one semester) and Morris, who showed only flashes of the skills that had made him the top-rated big man in high school hoops.
Smith’s next (and, as it turned out, final) recruiting class did include two top-notch backcourt talents, Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks. Jasper was the 6-foot-5, tough, talented point guard so many coaches covet. Meeks eventually proved to be one of the top shooters in the college game. But there was little more to excite anyone.
When it came to recruiting, Tubby Smith refused to play the game within the game. He abhorred dealing with what now are known as the “street agents” – the middlemen who so often park themselves between top high school players and college recruiters.
Too many losses and issues with his coaching staff drove Smith to the frozen north.
Enter Billy Gillispie, who immediately landed Patrick Patterson and Alex Legion, living up to his reputation as the guy whose recruiting prowess was exactly what the UK program needed.
But his recruiting patterns were difficult to fathom. He did snare Mr. Basketball Darius Miller. And with Jasper transferring to UNLV, Gillispie needed a point guard and gambled on highly-rated but troubled DeAndre Liggins. He also brought in junior college transfers Josh Harrelson and Kevin Galloway – good enough to warrant scholarships, but apparently not good enough to get minutes.
And through it all, he offered scholarships to players two, three, even four years away from college careers – perhaps intending to avoid dealing with the hustlers, most assuredly in hopes that the youngsters would grow bigger, stronger and more talented before they arrived in Lexington.
It puzzled Kentucky fans. Where were the big time recruits? The guys who were going to carry the Wildcats back to the Final Four? What’s with the trip to the NIT?
The answer was in Memphis.
Gillispie was out; John Calipari was in. The rejoicing began and did not abate for nearly two months. In fact, it grew ever stronger with the announcements of the signings of DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Darnell Dodson and then – let the trumpets blare – John Wall, consensus number one prep player in the land.
Calipari was doing, in his first six weeks on the job, what had been done sparingly in Lexington for the past six years – he was making UK relevant again in highest-level recruiting.
Only, it came with a price.
For the past several years, throughout college basketball, Calipari’s name triggered a reaction that mushroomed the day he was hired at Kentucky. Even though he’d never been found guilty of violating NCAA rules, he was known as a coach who played as fast and loose with recruiting guidelines as he could. But if you would ask accusers for specifics, they’d come up snake-eyes. Present company included.
Yes, there were discipline issues within the Tigers. And yes, the 1996 Final Four appearance by Massachusetts had been vacated by the NCAA – but that was, as you know by now, the result of star player Marcus Camby prematurely accepting money from an agent, rendering him instantly ineligible.
When UK reached out to the NCAA for information about Calipari, it got a thumbs up – because of the way Calipari cooperated during the Camby investigation.
No, there was no mention of an ongoing investigation at Memphis. That’s the way the NCAA works. Always has, always will. No comment about an ongoing investigation.
But it was fact, nevertheless. Calipari brought it to UK’s attention during the “vetting” process.
Derrick Rose stands accused of cheating on his SAT test. Neither Memphis nor Calipari has been linked by the NCAA, or anything other than innuendo, to the incident. And the school was, indeed, guilty of being lax when it came to billing Rose’s brother for air fare and hotel bills. And, it says here, Memphis and Calipari need to be held accountable for his very presence on the road trip.
But now, when there’s mention of Calipari and people flinch, there’s something more concrete than a notion. Sadly, in the world of college athletics, you’re guilty until proven innocent. And in the minds of some, even after you’re proven innocent.
Four years ago, UK had become an also-ran, an afterthought in the sport it used to dominate – at least, within the Southeastern Conference. During the ‘90’s the Wildcats twice were the top-seeded team heading into March Madness.
Last year, the Big Blue Nation showed tepid interest in the notion of following the Cats to New York for the NIT Final Four.
Now they have a coach who’s willing to try to negotiate the minefield that recruiting elite athletes has become. It means shaking hands with hustlers without getting your hands (too) dirty… accepting the “one & dones”… becoming a fixture at AAU tournaments and summer hoop festivals, which have become little more than recruiting meat markets. And, ironically enough, which Calipari has recommended should be outlawed.
Fans want a program that’s above reproach, one no longer seen as an NCAA renegade. But they also want a perennial power. And the only way to make that happen these days is by keeping the roster stocked with potential lottery picks.
North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas – even Duke – all have run afoul of NCAA rules within the last decade or two. None of them has a coach whose very name triggers the reaction Calipari’s can bring, even though they’ve all had their problems.
Kentucky fans hate that. But a majority of them loved the hire. It’s tough when you want it both ways.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)