Commentary

Will the joke end up being on Barnhart?

Originally Published: March 31, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

And on April Fools' Day, Mitch Barnhart will introduce John Calipari as the basketball coach at Kentucky.

This is the show-stopping conclusion to a two-year running prank Barnhart has been playing on the populace, showing what a wacky jokester the publicly bland athletic director really is.

Seriously, see if this isn't short-sheet-the-bed hilarious: In two years, Kentucky has gone from paying national championship-winning coach Tubby Smith $2.1 million a year to reportedly forking over $31.65 million plus incentives over eight years for a coach with less bling on his finger and more bones in his closet.

[+] EnlargeMitch Barnhart
Lexington Herald-Leader/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIMitch Barnhart's first hoops hire didn't go so well. He is now all-in with John Calipari.

With a Billy Gillispie train wreck in between.

Mitch, you're killing us! Enough with the tomfoolery!

But seriously, Mitch, given the embarrassing failure of the Gillispie era, let's hope this one goes better. At least you got what you most needed: a big name who actually said yes, and quickly.

Of course, the quick part didn't really play to your favor last time, did it? Hopefully, the exhaustive "fit" check on Calipari in the vast expanse of time between Friday afternoon (when Gillispie was fired) and Sunday morning (when word first got out of your impending meeting with Calipari) came back to your liking.

I know in your research you came across many people who love Cal -- they love the success, the coaching acumen, the energy, the charisma, the community generosity, the battler's spirit, the dreamer's ambition. I've heard those things myself from many people I respect in college basketball.

But I've heard a lot of other things, too. So before you two ride off to restore the glory of Big Blue Nation, a few questions for the AD:

Why didn't you hire Calipari two years ago, or even entertain him as a serious candidate? Surely it wasn't because Gillispie had a better coaching record -- he didn't. Surely it wasn't because Gillispie is a better people person -- few can match Calipari's outgoing personality and zeal to sell his program on every platform.

So if Calipari was interested -- and plenty of basketball insiders said he was at the time -- what was the problem? Was there something else that made you leery?

Would the apparent change in your perception of Calipari as a UK coaching candidate have anything to do with the fact that your own six-figure job is very much on the line after the Gillispie fiasco? And maybe now it's time to play ball with the boosters who see Cal's excellent record in Memphis and want to win big again? No matter what baggage he brings to Lexington?

Look, we all know Calipari brings plenty of wins with him. Over the past four seasons, he racked up 137 of them --- the most wins of any four-year stretch in college basketball history. That included four Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights and a national title game appearance. Compare that to Kentucky, which in the same four-year span won only 84 games, didn't win an SEC title, didn't make a Sweet 16 appearance and failed to make the NCAA tournament this season for the first time in 18 years.

But let's also examine some of the carry-on luggage Cal brought with him on that private plane to the Bluegrass State on Tuesday night.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Bob Donnan/US PresswireCalipari has an undeniable record of success, but it's his residency in the gray area that troubles his critics.

When you introduce Calipari on Wednesday in Lexington, will you make mention of his taking two teams to Final Fours? Or just one? Because the first one, with Massachusetts in 1996, was officially vacated from the NCAA record books after an agent hooked up star center Marcus Camby with cash and prostitutes. Calipari said he knew nothing about it and the NCAA did not charge the school with major infractions, but it happened on his watch.

That puts him in select company: one of two active coaches with vacated Final Fours on their résumés. (The other is Steve Fisher.) Will that be noted in the bio?

That leads me to another historical footnote: You're aware that Kentucky has gone through the NCAA judicial system six times for major infractions cases, right, Mitch? The NCAA set up shop in the 1950s, and UK has had a major infractions case in every decade but the '90s -- with two in the '80s for good measure.

Calipari has no major NCAA violations on his record -- not at Memphis, not at UMass. So I'm not suggesting he's going to come to Lexington and land the Wildcats on probation, Mitch. But I am saying that you, as the custodian of a historically checkered athletic program, have hired a guy who lives in the gray area, works every angle, pushes every corner of the envelope.

That's all fine, as long as the envelope never busts the way that Emery Air Freight one did, spilling $1,000 from the Kentucky basketball office to recruit Chris Mills and sparking a scandal that leveled the program 20 years ago.

But why linger in the past, Mitch? Let's talk about the future.

How do you feel about sharing office space? Because you might walk in one day and find Worldwide Wes sitting in your chair with his feet on your desk.

You know about Wes, right? Of course you do. Everyone in basketball knows William Wesley, aka Wes, even if nobody knows exactly what the loosely defined but tightly connected power broker does. But the important thing isn't his job description -- it's his results. Wes helped hook up Memphis with some of its best players under Calipari: Dajuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Tyreke Evans.

With those guys under his wing, Wes went wherever Wes pleased in Memphis -- locker room, practice facility, good seats at the FedEx Forum, too. Heck, I even ate with him once at the Tigers' training table. He's a charming guy, has a lot of charisma -- just don't ask him too much about his business.

With Wes, your job is to accommodate. Not interrogate.

What's your outlook on package deals, Mitch? You cool with them? If not, I suggest a change of attitude. When Calipari goes after big fish, the net tends to bring in some sucker fish, too.

Dajuan Wagner
AP Photo /Alan SpearmanThe Dajuan Wagner signing gave notice that Calipari was ready to put Memphis back on the map.

When he signed Juanny Wagner, he also got his dad as a staff member (Milt Wagner, even without a college degree) and his best friend (Arthur Barclay, despite limited ability). A positive side effect: Milt stayed several years after Juanny left and got his degree.

When he signed Evans, he got his personal strength coach, Lamont Peterson, too. But really, what high school kid doesn't come with his own strength coach these days?

And there even have been some prepackaging efforts. C.J. Henry, who hadn't played basketball in years after trying his hand at professional baseball, enrolled at Memphis this past August to play hoops. Surprisingly enough, his brother, Xavier -- considered by many the No. 1 high-school senior in America -- signed with the Tigers in November.

What about an occasional scrape with the law, Mitch? Guys such as Sean Banks, Andre Allen and Kareem Cooper got multiple chances to stay on the Memphis team and still couldn't do it.

Any opinion on prep schools, Mitch? Some of them have gotten a lot of negative publicity as academically sketchy diploma mills in recent years from the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post, but be prepared to deal with them. Calipari has relocated many an academic reclamation project to prep school. Among them: Joey Dorsey, Shawne Williams, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier and the aforementioned Cooper.

Hey, you and I both know Memphis is hardly the only place that works package deals. Or has players who get into trouble. Or goes the prep school route. These days, that's accepted as the price of doing business in the big leagues, isn't it?

Well, Calipari manages to stuff that stat sheet on all those fronts.

But with him, you also get 30-plus victories a season for the past four seasons. You get the big-time recruits your new head coach will inevitably bring in. You get renewed dreams of winning an eighth national championship.

That's why you're hiring John Calipari, Mitch. We all get it.

Happy April Fools' Day.

Hopefully, the joke won't end up on you.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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