Sports Nut

The Sleaziest Coach in a Sleazy Game

John Calipari and college basketball are a match made a few levels below heaven.

John Calipari and John Wall

I do not believe that Kentucky is going to win this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This is one reason why: I watched them beat the tar out of Tennessee in the SEC tournament, a ridiculous 74-45 blowout during which freshman center DeMarcus Cousins took the opportunity to give head coach John Calipari one of the greatest “Honky, please” looks since the demise of Richard Pryor, and a backup named Daniel Orton was told to absent himself briefly from the proceedings and walked up the tunnel, leaving Kentucky undermanned and the broadcast crew completely baffled. Meanwhile, Calipari was all over starry freshman guard John Wall, who was visibly counting down the seconds until the end of the season, whenever it is. And all this in a game that Kentucky won by 29.

So that’s one reason why they’re not going to win, even though the team is undeniably talented. (But not as talented as Kansas, to my mind anyway. I think the Jayhawks might be the most complete college basketball teams since the easily loathed Christian Laettner Duke teams of the early 1990s.) In Cousins, Wall, and Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky depends on three freshmen, at least two of whom—Cousins and Wall—likely will be gone for good within the next few weeks. (It’s possible that Bledsoe might enter the draft, too, although he probably shouldn’t.) By all the available evidence, these two guys have already partly checked out. Their concern for their draft status might be enough to motivate them to play hard in the tournament. But if they do, it won’t be because of the motivational genius of John Calipari. He’s already distant white noise in their lives.

Here’s the other reason: Even if Kentucky wins, historical precedent says that, sooner or later, they won’t win. For example, in 1996, a 35-2 University of Massachusetts team coached by John Calipari made it all the way to the Final Four. A year later, because of a tangled scandal involving Marcus Camby, jewelry, and hookers, the NCAA stripped UMass of its tournament victories, forced the school to pay back $151,617 in tournament revenues, and expunged the team’s accomplishments from the official record book. Then, in 2008, a 38-2 Memphis team coached by John Calipari made it all the way to the championship game. A year later, because of a tangled scandal involving papier-mâché SAT scores, the NCAA stripped Memphis of its tournament victories, forced the school to pay back more than $500,000 in tournament revenues, and expunged the team’s accomplishments from the official record book.

This is awe-inspiring. Two schools, at different times and in different places, both with their greatest seasons erased from the record books, and both of them coached by the same guy. None of college basketball’s other historic buccaneers ever pulled this off. Not Jerry Tarkanian at Long Beach and UNLV. Not Norm Ellenberger, the New Mexico coach who came a cropper because he committed recruiting violations over a telephone that already had been tapped by the FBI. Not even the late Dana Kirk, one of Calipari’s predecessors at Memphis, whose corruption was so blatant that he actually went to prison. None of these legends have accomplished what John Calipari’s programs have.

So there you have it. The 2010 Kentucky Wildcats—perhaps soon d/b/a as Later Vacated.

Anyone who follows college basketball sooner or later develops a kind of ethical dementia. The sport is a perfect example of a functioning underground economy. Players have skills that CBS—to name only the most prominent parasite—values at something over $1 billion a year. Because this is not Soviet Russia, players find ways to get paid for these skills under the table, largely because a preposterous rulebook (and a feast of fat things called the NCAA) works diligently to prevent anyone from getting paid over the table. Since everybody involved in the sport has known this for decades, there’s a lot of the old nudge-nudge, wink-wink going on.

Back when I covered the sport full time in the early 1980s, there was a kind of generally accepted low comedy to the corruption. My favorite story is the one about the New York City street agent who got an assistant coach from a prominent school to loan him a car in return for delivering a prospect, whereupon the street agent drove the car two blocks and into a building, whereupon he walked back to the coach, tossed him the keys, and asked him for another car. Whether you think this is a funny story pretty much defines how willing you are to overlook how the college hoops sausage gets made.

But even in this culture, which is pretty much what a dockside saloon in Singapore would be if it had shoe contracts and golf outings, John Calipari always has been notable for the baroque happenings that seem to surround his every move. Coaches who have barbered the rulebook like Edward Scissorhands look upon Calipari with a weird mixture of awe and disdain. When he was but a baby brigand in the employ of the University of Pittsburgh, Calipari’s recruiting tactics very nearly incited a general hooley at the Big East’s annual meeting.

During his brief, and clamorously unsuccessful, stint coaching the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, a job he landed because of that UMass Final Four run that doesn’t officially exist any more, Calipari enlivened things by calling a reporter a “Mexican idiot.” Then he moved on to Memphis, a university with a proud history of employing coaches whom you would not trust to hang up your coat. The aforementioned Kirk, who died in February, had his 1985 Final Four appearance officially Later Vacated.

Unless the school wins its pending appeal before the NCAA, the Memphis program will have two Later Vacateds in its history, and John Calipari will have two Later Vacateds on his résumé. This was a match made a few levels below heaven.

In 2005, long before the questions arose over who exactly took Derrick Rose’s SAT, there was a break-in at the apartment where several members of the Memphis team lived. According to police reports, the items stolen included $3,600 in fake fur coats, $6,000 worth of shoes, and however many throwback jerseys $2,150 will buy you. It is possible that the players in question amassed this bounty on only what they received for books, tuition, room and board, and fees, or out of the largesse of their respective grandmothers. It is also possible that Maggie Gyllenhaal waits for me around the next corner. Then came that great season that doesn’t exist any more, and the scandal, and Calipari was off to Kentucky while Memphis took the NCAA sanctions right in the face.

But the man is a master at walking between the raindrops. The argument in his defense is, always, that nobody investigating the scandals at UMass and Memphis ever found anything they could pin directly on John Calipari. It was always the players who betrayed his fundamentally naive trust in their integrity, or the shifty characters around the players who induced them to abuse the good nature of a decent chap who’s only trying to play by increasingly complex rules. While Calipari knew Memphis was under investigation before he scurried off to Lexington, the NCAA itself has said that Calipari is not “at risk” in its investigation of the Memphis program. His responsibility for knowing what was going on with his players ended at … well, it’s hard to say where it ended because, by the logic used in this defense, it never really began. What was he supposed to do, anyway? How can a poor man stand such times and live?

No, seriously, that’s what people argue.

That’s how Calipari wound up at Kentucky, bringing along both Wall and Cousins, the latter of whom had previously committed to Memphis when he was there.

Because nothing ever touches him, Kentucky did everything but lay out a golden carpet between Memphis and Lexington. He’s certainly delivered so far. His team is one of two favored to win the tournament, and any basketball fan has to love the way John Wall plays. Very soon, Wall will move on to a more honest professional career, and good for him. Before he does, however, it would be nice if one of our basketball pundits would bring up the whole Later Vacated thing. He wins and then, poof! He’s disappeared from history, like a dead pharaoh fallen out of favor or a general who displeased Stalin. And, if Kentucky wins this thing and you picked someone else in your pool, just be patient. Appeals might be pending for a couple of years.Become a fan of  Slate  and the  Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.