‘Winning’ only adjective that actually fits Calipari

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Choose your adjectives carefully regarding John Calipari. Someone will have an issue with your choice.

Recruits trust him. Many media members don’t. Some might call his top-flight recruiting hauls shady, but it’s impossible to deny his charm and track record. Not buying his attire and demeanor? Try telling that to former enemies who are now friends.

Perhaps most fitting — at least before Charlie Sheen corrupted it – would be winning. That’s Calipari, beyond anything else.  His teams win.

That’s why he’s at Kentucky. That’s why he makes roughly $4 million a year. But the winning isn’t why he’s the most controversial coach in America. He’s controversial because of the other adjectives, though, as S.L. Price recently wrote in Sports Illustrated, “Calipari is what’s wrong with college basketball, but not everyone can agree on what, exactly, wrong is.”

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The vacated Final Fours are where most start.

Calipari’s one of 12 coaches to take two teams to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four, yet the NCAA later vacated both those appearances because of rule violations. But the vacated appearances aren’t that simple.

Massachusetts’ 1996 run was stricken from the official record book because star center Marcus Camby accepted at least $28,000 in money, jewelry, prostitutes services and car rentals from two agents while in school. The school had to repay money earned from its four tournament victories. Camby left for the NBA. Calipari did the same.

Yet Camby said Calipari knew nothing about the gifts and Tom Yeager, the chair of the NCAA infractions committee agreed. Yeager wrote a letter to Calipari in 2004: “There is no doubt that you were unaware of the violations involving student-athlete Camby. In a sense, you were an ‘innocent victim’ in this.”

Most scoff at this notion. “How could he not know?!” There’s much a coach doesn’t know about his players, and much of it is out of his control. That shouldn’t overlook UMass’ fate, but it shouldn’t completely damn Calipari, either. After all, even John Wooden had booster issues.

The second vacated Final Four came at Memphis in 2008. This time it was an inadmissible test score.

Star point guard Derrick Rose couldn’t meet the required SAT score after taking it three times in Chicago. When he went to Detroit and passed, the test was later ruled invalid. Gone were an NCAA-record 38 wins and a spot in the championship game.

The NCAA didn’t implicate Calipari in its final ruling, but it didn’t slam the door shut like Yeager did with his letter. He may have escaped official sanctions, but it was more than enough for common sentiment to come to one conclusion: Cheater. (We said it, too.)

But wait. There’s more context.

Calipari’s previous Final Fours are stricken from the official record, yet he’s hardly the only coach in that category.  Nine coaches have “unofficially” been to Final Fours, including two Basketball Hall of Famers in Jack Ramsay and Larry Brown. And that’s just Final Fours.

In all, 34 schools have had NCAA tournament appearances vacated, which covers 37 coaches.  Five of those coaches – Brown, Ramsay, Lute Olson, Ralph Miller and Calipari’s opponent Saturday, Jim Calhoun – are Hall of Famers. Three other coaches who’ve won NCAA titles – Jim Valvano, Jim Harrick and Jerry Tarkanian – made the list with two different schools.

(This doesn’t include coaches who’ve had players that broke rules, but the NCAA ruled in the school’s favor, or players who had questionable high school transcripts, but were ultimately cleared.)

As John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote Thursday, that’s a fact omitted at nearly every turn when Calipari’s past is mentioned. It’s not an excuse – a coach should be responsible for what happens in his program – but important to note because Calipari’s usually the one dealing with the disdain.

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He’s been fighting that perception long before he reached the Final Four, too. 

Calipari famously feuded with other coaches while at UMass. Calhoun refused to schedule the Minutemen for various reasons. Temple coach John Chaney was once so enraged by Calipari, his reaction’s become legendary.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6jUpHClybQ]

While at Memphis, Calipari constantly fought the image of a dirty program because he brought in high-profile recruits. Some (DaJuan Wagner, Shawne Williams) didn’t stick around long. Years before it was commonplace, Calipari encouraged talented players to go pro. Who was he to deny them millions?

It boosted his recruiting profile, but hardly made Memphis the No. 1 holding ground for would-be pros. UConn, Arizona and Duke all produced more pros. And the school continually did well in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, or APR. Not that it helped him shed the slick image.

From the Memphis Commercial-Appeal in 2008:

Calipari was none too pleased when Memphis, largely because of its perceived lack of “program cleanliness” ranked 29th out of 29 teams in [a Basketball Times] survey. According to Basketball Times editor and survey panelist John Akers, Calipari was also “clearly annoyed” to come in 18th out of the 29 coaches, behind the likes of Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery (sixth), Creighton’s Dana Altman (11th), Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie (12th) and Xavier’s Sean Miller (17th).

Calipari dismissed the survey and its results out of hand when asked about it recently.

“It was done by a bunch of writers who have not been in my corner since I’ve coached,” he said. “If a guy has an agenda, what do I care what he writes?”

That’s how Calipari’s tried to deal with his image in recent years. Ignore it and go on with his winning. (The winning, I would think, helps one ignore everything else.) Calipari’s also done his best to cultivate friendships among former enemies, too. That includes Chaney.

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Then, there’s the Xs and Os. Calipari’s long been viewed as a recruiter first, coach second, a guy who you didn’t want on your sideline as the game wore on. Recruiters are slick and all smoke and mirrors. An Xs and Os guy? They’re the teachers of the game.

Yet, when Calipari outmaneuvered both Roy Williams and Thad Matta in a span of three days last week, it marked an important first step to changing the Calipari narrative.  The Wildcats (29-8) have talent with Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, but they also rely on former benchwarmers like Josh Harrellson.

Last year’s Elite Eight squad undoubtedly had more talent. But this year’s team is in the Final Four – and Calipari’s the main reason why. But it’s not about his coaching, it’s about his past.

To a point, that’s fair. Wondering if Kentucky will join UMass and Memphis isn’t unreasonable given his record. But at what point do we stop doubting? In three years? Five years? School president Lee Todd says this year’s Final Four banner is never coming down. He may be right.

In two years at Kentucky, the school’s dealt with probes into two players Calipari recruited: John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. Neither resulted in Kentucky violations.

Maybe that’s what so interesting about Calipari’s current situation. He’s at one of the nation’s proudest college hoops programs and shouldn’t have to be viewed as an outsider at an upstart school. Yet the doubts remain.

From Dan Wolken’s column in The Daily:  

What Kentucky offered Calipari, in his mind, wasn’t about money (he left behind more) or wins or recruits. It was a chance to be cleansed, to come from the shadows and bathe in the light of the sport’s elite, to push his way into an establishment that had always left him on the outside. Even more than basketball, it was the completion of his lifelong struggle to get to the other side of the tracks. …

Only, it hasn’t happened that way at all. Two months after taking the job, an NCAA investigation into Derrick Rose’s SAT surfaced at Memphis, eventually making him the first coach ever to have two Final Fours vacated. … No matter how hard he tried to run from who he is, Kentucky didn’t change a thing about Calipari. He’s still rich, still winning and still the most controversial coach in America. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Calipari supporters might question why I included a Wolken column. He used to cover Memphis while at the Commercial-Appeal and isn’t seen as a Calipari supporter. But that column – whether the ultimate point is correct or not – sums up the sentiment toward Calipari.

People don’t trust him. Some never will, no matter if he spends the rest of his days at Kentucky graduating 100 percent of players and never takes another five-star prospect. Two vacated Final Fours made up people’s mind. The natty suits, charming demeanor and sly smile rub some the wrong way.

He’s not a villain. He’s not an angel. He’s somewhere in-between, much like any big-time college coach. And right now, he’s winning at a place that’s accustomed to winning, and winning big.

Maybe that’s what irks people most.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.