Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kentucky vs. West Virginia: College Sports at its Best?

Watching the Kentucky/West Virginia NCAA tournament game today will be an exercise in going to the dentist for anyone who cares about the integrity of college sport. Like looking through the glass darkly, it reveals the shadow that hovers over big time college sport.

The fact that John Calipari and Bob Huggins both continue to coach at the Division 1 athletic level tells the whole story. The point of the game is that their presence reveals that in the end, the universities, their Presidents, Boards and alumni will opt for winning over the integrity of the university.

Huggins is a nice example. For sixteen years he coached University of Cincinnati. His basketball brutalism won consistently. He won with a swaggering style and huge temper and bigger than life persona. He certainly was bigger than the Presidents he outlasted and the drunk driving charge he beat. He certainly was bigger than the assaults and problems his players regularly got into.

What makes him a poster child for all that is wrong with collegiate sports was that fact that he could coach for years and years and never graduate any students, sorry official records claim about thirty percent sort of graduated. He specialized in not graduating minority students. He didn’t care and more importantly, the university did not care. His tenure served as a poster child for those of us who sought academic reform that would penalize schools who did not ensure that college athletes made progress towards their degree. Huggins exemplified the world of coaches rewarded and lionized and privileged beyond the norms of academic life because he won.

His final exit from Cincinnati brought on by a drunk driving incident and a President who had the spine to take on the boosters and Board launched him on an interesting year. He traveled the country, unencumbered by NCAA rules, and ingratiated himself to star players. When he was offered a job by Kansas State University, which only proves Presidents desperate to win bill overlook integrity and graduation rates, he brought a bunch of top recruits with him: recruits other coaches could not develop relations with because active coaches were bound by NCAA contact rules.

 In a touching story and irony, he bolted K. State after a year to return to his alma mater, leaving K. State holding the bag, but also appointing Huggins' top assistant to keep his top recruits. Who knows, with luck and penalties, he might actually graduate some kids from West Virginia (please note in full disclosure mode Huggins’ West Virginia team squarely and fairly beat the University of Washington in the NCAA tournament on Thursday).

What can I say about the paragon of college sport integrity?  John Calipari is a great college coach. Not a great pro coach as his short NBA career showed (but that may be a good thing). But he can flat out coach and motivate young athletes. At University of Massachusetts he brought an unheralded program to a national championship. Two years ago he brought the Memphis State program to a national championship. Funny thing about both those national championships—the  year after he won them he bolted for higher prestige and better paying jobs—he is at Kentucky now. But both national championships were vacated by the NCAA for recruiting scandals. Let me repeat, both championships were vacated for recruiting scandals. Now that is a unique record. Yet even with the record, programs clamor to hire him.

This year he is bringing  team to the national tournament and number one seed with three freshman, two of them will leave after one year for the pros. (for those of us who care about academics the one and out rule fostered by the NBA’s refusal to baby sit teenagers until they are 19 continues to be a disaster and mockery of college sports). Caliperi excels as a recruiter and pied piper. He also deploys a standard technique of hiring relatives or people close to players to be on his staff which helps seal the deals. He also excels at preparing athletes for the pros; so he has three athletes on his team who will sit in on classes for a couple months, leave for the pros and maybe bring another title.

This is it. One who does not graduate students; one who wins tainted titles, both sought after all over as a coach. Both win basketball games, but neither should be college coaches.

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