Beyond the Bison: “All in the game”

By Julian Dorey
Staff Writer

John Calipari might be the most polarizing college basketball coach in the last 20 years.  But, that doesn’t mean he’s not one of the best.

It does not matter what the court of public opinion might say about the man. He may not be morally strong or have ethics more respectable than a crook, but he is regardless one of the best.

Calipari does things his way.  It’s a big reason why his previous two college head coaching positions, UMass and Memphis, had the dishonor of submitting to the NCAA and vacating wins and achievements from Calipari’s years there because of various violations. 

Coach Cal, as his players call him, cares about one thing: basketball.  He does not care about the idea of a “student-athlete.”  He does not seem to care about NCAA rules.  He does not seem to care about honor.  The descriptive stories of the many egregious recruiting violations that have occurred under his watch are damning.

Above all, Calipari’s biggest lightning rod of criticism comes from his perpetual habit of recruiting “one-and-dones.”  Ever since the NBA changed its age policy to require at least one year of college experience before going pro, Calipari has taken advantage of recruiting players with absolutely no interest in a college education.  If you go to college, though, you have to participate in the academic part of it, and Calipari has yet to enforce that aspect.  Coach Cal has even gone as far as convincing many of his first-years to leave college instead of trying to get them to come back.  His sheer under-appreciation of the importance of education makes many college basketball purists squirm.  Even longtime Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has openly questioned where Calipari’s beliefs will lead college basketball.

Calipari’s “one-and-done” system is bad for college basketball, but does not change the impressive results he obtains on the court.  Two Mondays ago, Coach Cal earned his first-ever National Championship.  With a starting lineup of three first-years and two sophomores, all expected to declare for this June’s NBA draft, Calipari’s Wildcats were the best team in college basketball all season.

More importantly, the team played the game the right way, a way that most basketball teams refuse to play anymore: everything started with defense. Behind Anthony Davis (the sure-fire number-one-overall pick in this year’s draft), Kentucky swarmed every team they played with feisty on-ball tactics and incredible blocking in the paint.

Throughout their six-game run in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats were significantly smarter, faster and better than anyone they played.  I might not like Calipari, but I have to give credit where it is due.

However, now that Calipari has won the big one, a question will float among the minds of every college basketball fan in America: What does this mean?

It’s a valid question. There’s a thin line between accomplishment and short-cutting. Through completely eliminating academics, Calipari is convincing talented—but young and academically unmotivated—players to come play for him.  It has given him a leg up above other great programs in recruiting.

Now that he’s a champion, even more high school “one-and-dones” will want to play for him.  It may only be a matter of time before other prestigious schools are forced to contend with Cal’s methods.  That won’t be good for anyone.

For me, the real question is: Is it only what’s in the game that matters? Or, is it the pride, dignity, and honor that goes into playing the game in the first place that matters?

Calipari is a great basketball coach who is killing the student-athlete aspect of his game.  If college basketball drops the college part of its name, what’s left?

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