Commentary

See no evil, hear no evil in Kentucky

Memphis mess doesn't dampen UK's giddy feeling toward new coach John Calipari

Originally Published: May 28, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It poured here Thursday afternoon. Torrential, briefly biblical stuff.

Then, in roughly the time it would take a (cough) student-athlete (cough) to answer 20 SAT questions, the deluge was done, and the sky was blue.

Kentucky fans are hoping that's a hardwood harbinger.

They're hoping the sudden storm cloud that blew in Wednesday night in the form of NCAA allegations of major violations at Memphis under John Calipari's watch turns out to be a temporary tempest. They're hoping the conversation quickly turns back to John Wall and Patrick Patterson and sunny visions of an NIT-to-national title vault in year one under Calipari.

In fact, shortly after the blue skies appeared, I heard two Kentucky fans at Starbucks go through that very progression. They spent about five minutes discussing the potential ripple effect from Memphis, most of it criticizing the media coverage. Then they spent about 10 minutes excitedly ruminating on the prospect of watching Jodie Meeks play in the same backcourt with Wall.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari and Derrick Rose
AP Photo/Eric GayReigning NBA Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose is at the center of alleged violations at Memphis.

For a large segment of this state, which had spent the first 45 days of Calipari's tenure delirious over the coach's instant recruiting success and rampant charisma, the strategy seems to be a spirited umbrella defense:

Do not rain on our upcoming parade.

Do not sully the name of our savior coach, no matter the messes he left behind at his last two collegiate stops.

And do not criticize our administration for hiring Calipari while his program was under investigation for major violations, even if the same administration passed on Calipari two years earlier because of concerns about his methods when his program was not under investigation.

The Big Blue chorus: We're happy for the first time in a long time over here, OK?!? Don't ruin it!

As it stands, Kentucky's optimism probably cannot be damaged in tangible terms by this NCAA investigation. Whatever penalties may result from this investigation likely will stop at the Tennessee border and never migrate north.

As every Kentuckian older than 3 can resolutely recite today, Calipari is not named by the NCAA in regards to any of the alleged violations -- though he has been asked to answer questions from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, a step that one knowledgeable source termed unusual for a coach who has left that program.

The substantive damage is to Calipari's reputation, which already was a long way from pristine before this investigation came to light. Cal is verging on establishing an ignominious track record: He giveth unprecedented success, and then he walketh away when the building starts to burn down.

Calipari brought Marcus Camby to UMass and took the Minutemen to the 1996 Final Four. Then he sprinted to a big paycheck in the NBA while the NCAA vacated that Final Four after it was discovered that Camby was being paid by agents.

Same song, different verse at Memphis. This time the instrument of success and scandal was Derrick Rose, the point guard who allegedly needed a lot of help gaining college eligibility. The NCAA has alleged that an unnamed (cough) student-athlete (cough) cheated on his SAT, and the only guy who fits the description is Rose. Now the Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Rose was one of four Simeon High School athletes who allegedly had grades changed on their transcripts to ensure eligibility.

Memphis and Calipari could be in the clear on that if this was a Windy City inside job.

But there's another alleged violation at Memphis that should be more troubling for the school and potentially for Calipari: the failure by "an associate" of a (cough) student-athlete (cough) to pay for multiple trips on the team plane and stays at the team hotel. (Reports have named the "associate" as Derrick Rose's brother, Reggie, who handled most of the recruitment of his younger sibling.) The trips cost a total of more than $2,200, and there's no way to believe Calipari didn't know who was on the plane or at the team hotel.

The rationale being given is that the school simply made a bookkeeping error. It forgot to bill the "associate" for those trips, but had billed him for several others. But here are my questions:

What is an "associate" of a player doing on the team plane? And why would the school possibly set up and countenance such an arrangement, given the potential for compliance problems in facilitating travel and lodging for said person?

ESPN.com spoke to several Division I head coaches and assistants about that arrangement Thursday, and the reaction was unanimous: never heard of it before, anywhere. In fact, several of them were certain that it was an NCAA violation to even offer reimbursable space on a charter flight to a player's relative. Not to mention that the cost of flying on a charter is virtually always much higher than the cost of flying commercial.

Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson says the school routinely sells seats on its charter plane to anyone willing to buy. The unanswered question for Johnson is this: Did any other family members ever buy the seats, or just Reggie Rose?

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
John Sommers II/Icon SMISchool president Lee Todd (right) was part of the Kentucky contingent that picked John Calipari.

In Lexington, the obvious question in need of an answer is what Kentucky knew about the specifics of these Memphis allegations. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart and president Lee Todd are issuing statements saying everyone was upfront and above-board and just swell to deal with … but that doesn't put a period at the end of the sentence.

For one thing, Barnhart's April 1 characterization of the school's vetting of the coach was, to put it politely, "clarified" by the NCAA in a release Thursday. At UK's introductory press conference, Barnhart said the school conducted an "exhaustive" review of Calipari's compliance background that included a discussion with director of enforcement David Price. That's the same David Price who signed and issued the NCAA letter sent to Memphis two months prior.

Just one problem: the NCAA cannot and will not discuss an ongoing investigation such as the one involving Memphis. Not with anyone, including an athletic director seeking to hire a coach and doing a background check. Indeed, according to the NCAA release Thursday, Price declined to offer anything and sent UK back to Calipari for information.

So exactly how "exhaustive" was that review, anyway?

The fact is, the questions that have always clung to Calipari -- about his ability to keep a program out of trouble, about his interest in recruiting actual college students, about his commitment to discipline -- only intensify now.

But most Wildcats fans don't want to hear any of that at the moment. The sun is shining brighter than it has in a long while on their old Kentucky home. They want their winner and they want him now, and they're not worried about what happened at his previous place of employment.

Which is probably exactly how Memphis fans felt when John Calipari came to them 10 years ago.

Ask them how they feel today.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com. Information in this story was also gathered by ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil.

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