According to some, the University of Kentucky's well-deserved 2012 NCAA basketball championship is the last step in college basketball's tragic demise. The narrative paints UK coach John Calipari as an opportunistic cheater who recruits young and talented mercenaries, with no allegiance to anything but their own greed, to come to UK for a year before turning pro. The fact that he has finally won a national championship, we are told, is the last coffin nail in the hallowed purity of college basketball.
Coaches like Wisconsin's Bo Ryan are often held up as the "Anti-Cal," somehow finding (limited) success in a more noble basketball world that is threatened by the forces of darkness. But like many narratives, this one is a myth and is based on a stubborn clinging to a college basketball landscape that no longer exists.
Before I go any further, I should divulge my own bias: I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and am a proud graduate of UK. So with my blue-tinted glasses firmly in place, I tell you Coach Cal is not a criminal and his methods are not corrupt. He has taken the hand that has been dealt and has played it better than any other coach in the nation. And it is not even close.
Calipari did not invent the "one-and-done" rule that precludes players from declaring for the NBA draft until a year after they graduate from high school and he has publicly spoken out against it. However, he also recognizes it for what it is and recruits accordingly. UK has reeled in the number one recruiting class every year since he has been in Lexington and is set for yet another.
Elite players come to UK because they know that they can perfect their skills playing for the nation's top coach and have a chance to win a national championship. After a year or two (yes, the Cats had two elite sophomores and a senior this year), they can go on to the league and make their millions. This is the system Calipari has constructed and it works very well.
Calipari has had his issues with the NCAA in the past, and has the distinction of being the only coach in NCAA history to have two Final Four appearances vacated. At UMass, he was coach when Marcus Camby accepted money from an agent, and later he was at the helm at Memphis when Derrick Rose allegedly paid another student to take the SAT for him. These incidents are unfortunate, but in both cases the NCAA explicitly stated that -- although they happened under Cal's watch -- he was not involved with either violation. The same cannot be said for coaches Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun and others who have violations attributed directly to them. Yet somehow these coaches escape the black hat that has stuck so firmly to Calipari's head.
Look at it this way: If UW had a professor who routinely taught elite computer science freshmen so well in a year that they consistently left school without a degree for high paying jobs at Apple or Microsoft, we would laud the teacher, the students and the school. However, somehow we look at this same scenario in college basketball as being impure and undesirable. Why? On the court Calipari teaches these kids to reach the highest level in their chosen field, and in the classroom his players have the highest team GPA of any team in the SEC (yes, including Vanderbilt). How is this a failure? If we don't like the NCAA's system, we should not vilify Cal and his players, but rather petition the NCAA to change its rules -- rules that Calipari has legitimately mastered.
For those who hold up Coach Ryan as somehow more chaste, I would argue that he and Cal are not so different. They both have their systems and recruit according to their needs. The difference is that Cal simply does it better. While Bo will compete for Big Ten championships every year, Cal will compete for national championships. He did not create the rules, but at UK he has taken full advantage of them. And despite what the Bobby Knights of the world might say, there is no crime in that.
Matt Earley is a co-founder of Just Coffee Co-op in Madison and, in addition to being a lifelong Kentucky basketball fan, is a certified Kentucky Colonel. He plays guitar and celebrates Southern music in Winn Dixie.