Friday, September 14, 2012

Retiring Calhoun Represented College Hypocrisy on Sports

One down and a bunch more to go.

Jim Calhoun the championship winning coach of the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team retired this week. Calhoun won three national NCAA championships, and coached and recruited with a passionate intensity to win at all costs. He collected as many violations and probabtions as championships, but he and his school did not care. He embodied the coach whose sole purpose in life remained to win, period. He was not worried about character, grades, education, but about winning championships, and he succeeded and his University rewarded him for it.  I'm glad he's gone.

The predictable econiums are coming his way from the paid literati of sports media—he always made good stories, valiantly fought cancer and defied the NCAA. The media made him into a sort of a bandit folk hero rather like Gerry Tarkenian at Nevada Los Vegas. This is misplaced praise and respect. He’s a schmuck. I will not miss him and neither should anyone else.

Calhoun epitomized a long and ignorable tradition of college basketball coaches who won and won big, but could care less if his players got an education. He treated NCAA rules as signposts to be ignored when convenient. He ranks up there with Bob Huggins of Cincinnati and West Virginia with his mockery of the academic and student side of being a student-athlete. I would put him with John Calipari of Kentucky, but John Calipari lives in a different moral universe entirely where students, grades and academics not only don’t matter they don’t exist.

Calhoun is interesting from another aspect. Despite his resolute inattention to academics and graduation, the various UConn Presidents supported him. Why? Because like Joe Paterno at Penn State, Calhoun helped put UCONN on the map. No one knew about the university until it became a basketball power. The school, like Penn State, hitched its reputation and recognition to its athletic program. Like Penn State it has been willing to look the other way and put up with penalties and undue booster influence to win championships and market itself. Who knew about UConn before Calhoun? So the University defended its coach even as he made a mockery of its educational mission. 

I won’t go into Calhoun’s record, nor his championships. His strength was playing to his talent. Players loved playing for him although he could be cruel, demanding, irascible and relentless. After all no one had to go to class, no one worried about grades or about money and the players won. Two dozen went on to three and eight year careers at the professional level. His teams played with relentless intensity and players reached their maximum athletic potential under him. He knew how to draw out the best athletic performance from the talent he recruited. For this he deserves recognition.
But from the perspective of the NCAA and someone who believes in student athletes as both an ideal and a possible reality, Calhoun represented the worst, except for Calipari, that college basketball could offer. His kids did not go to class and when they did, they did not perform.

Calhoun was not a big character guy; he was a winning guy. Most of the really good coaches try to impart character and life development through the skills and focus needed to succeed on the court. Calhoun, to his credit, never claimed to care about character or about teaching kids to live well. This fit with his utter lack of concern about them actually getting an education. The kids cooperated in this because at the talent level he recruited many expected to and would play professional ball.

We will leave aside the fact that the average professional career is three to five years and 70 percent leave the pros bankrupt. The great advantage of the American system over the European system lies in the fact that college can leave its student athletes with a life and career and skills after sport abandons them.

A team has to work hard to have a low APR, which is a surrogate measure for staying in school and graduating. But the APR provides a pass for players who become professional athletes early. This means we are looking at a very small number of basketball players at Connecticut under Calhoun. The only other master who approached this was Huggins in his days at Cincinnati where he burned through players and left them by the way side without a degree or an education.

Calhoun and Connecticut have unique honor of being one of the first schools for being denied entrance to the NCAA tournament for failure to graduate students at the 50 percent rate demanded by the APR. You have to understand that this rate excludes students who leave early to become professionals—they are given a pass. So this means that the students who do not go professional do not graduate and do not get the educational advantages or tools that the colleges promised the kids but especially the parents and guardians.

I am not a Pollyanna. Most college basketball and football players are not particularly excited about going to class and learning. They believe in, and often their entourage is invested in, the dream of going professional. But most fail and even when they achieve it, they end up at age 25 without sports or an education. So good coaches and committed schools use the motivation of play, or practice time and invest in tutoring and guidance to help those reluctant students learn to learn and grow into students by their junior or senior year. We have abundant data that this can and does occur with a very high level of frequency; it also happens far more now than before the reforms of the last six years.
Calhoun was not a good college coach. He won, but he was not a good college coach from any perspective linked to education. He leaves his team on probation and banned from tournaments. If the rules had been in place earlier, they would not have gone to a tournament for years.

But let’s be honest. Calhoun, Huggins and Calipari could not exist if the colleges pledged to the idea of student athletes did not let them. The colleges not only let them get away with not attending to education, but pay them huge salaries, name buildings after them. The Presidents of Connecticut and Kentucky praise their coaches as educators. As a teacher I can rail all I want and as a teacher I can respect the coaches who do take education seriously, get their students to class, made education and character aspects of coaching—but modern college Presidents are notoriously willing to hire and lionize coaches who do nothing but win. Calhoun is a representative of the worst moral hypocrisy of the system. I won’t miss him, but there are plenty more like him.

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