Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

August 21, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 3:15 pm

It’s only malfeasance if you get caught. In the case of John Calipari, though, Final Four seasons just keep getting vacated without Coach Cal being “implicated.” (By the way, there’s something to put on your tombstone, Roland Burris-style. “I was never implicated.” Bully for you.)

Calfeasance: A particularly elusive brand of sketchy conduct, wherein a star player’s brother pays for five flights with the team but flies free for two; or where your star player’s SAT is invalidated by Educational Testing Service–but only after his college career is over. As a coach engaging in calfeasance, you reap the benefits on the court and move on to a better gig just when you hear the sirens closing in. In the immortal words of Keith Richards, you walk before they make you run.

Doesn’t that just stick in your craw? If so, Dana O’Neil of ESPN has helpfully arranged for a cart chock full of muffins, lattes, and catharsis to be wheeled to your cubicle this morning: “We waited eight weeks for this? For a punishment that has the bite of a 15-year-old golden retriever?”

Sure, it’d be nice if this saga had a more definitive outcome than “let us never speak of this again.” The problem is that the available evidence in this case doesn’t support that more definitive outcome.

The NCAA’s Public Infractions Report is pretty efficient in laying out what is and is not known. And O’Neil’s entire premise–what punishment?–is shredded by an exchange that took place at the June 6 hearing between a lawyer for Memphis and a member of the Committee on Infractions (an exchange that, pointedly, the NCAA took the trouble of reproducing at some length in an otherwise slim document):

COMMITTEE MEMBER: If you have a test score that is invalidated, you didn’t have the scores to be admitted to begin with. Where am I wrong?

UNIVERSITY LEGAL COUNSEL: At the time he was admitted on the score that was provided at the time? Is that your question? Was he eligible, in looking backwards, whether he was eligible or not?

COMMITTEE MEMBER: Yes. He didn’t have the score.

UNIVERSITY LEGAL COUNSEL: We have acknowledged that.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: You have acknowledged that he was ineligible.

UNIVERSITY LEGAL COUNSEL: Yes, and we have to address that, based on after-the-fact information.


COMMITTEE MEMBER: Okay. So, he was ineligible?

UNIVERSITY LEGAL COUNSEL: Yes; yes, sir. The university was not aware at the time he was ineligible.

COMMITTEE MEMBER: I didn’t suggest they were.


COMMITTEE MEMBER: I am not saying they cheated. I am saying this young man was not eligible to participate.


[emphasis added] 

We can all engage in conjecture about what Calipari knew and when he knew it. Anyone who cares at all about college basketball is right to do so. (Derrick Rose tried and failed three times to achieve the required score on the ACT. With less than 30 days to go before he would report to campus, Calipari’s star recruit changed course, went to Detroit to watch a Bulls game, and gave the SAT a try. My conjecture is that it would be odd in such a situation if a future number 1 overall NBA pick was strategizing alone on how best to secure the necessary test score.)

More saliently, Kentucky would have been well advised to engage in precisely that conjecture before hiring Calipari. I’ll even go so far as to speculate that when members of the Committee on Infractions get home at night and prop up their feet, they too engage in the same kind of speculation.

But in their day jobs those same committee members decide on actual punishments that inflict real and purposeful damage on coaches and programs. (Ask Kelvin Sampson and Indiana.) And the evidence showed that Rose was ineligible, nothing more or less.

Vastly more plausible than a simple off-with-their-heads! yelp is the despondent fatalism recorded more in sorrow than in anger by Luke Winn of “As the NCAA prepares to erase another Calipari milestone, [a] message is being sent: You can have not one, but two Final Fours vacated for using ineligible players, and still become the highest-paid coach in the game, at the most storied basketball school in the land. Knowing that, what incentive is left to stay clean?”

Hey, I can do Whelliston-tinged resignation and ennui with the best of them. But, as it happens, it’s time to turn that frown upside down, college hoops world! Hit “next” on your black-on-the-inside Morrissey and crank up your can-do Go! Team, because the ameliorative procedures needed here are refreshingly straightforward and easy to install!

I offer my program of sweeping reform free of charge. Just give me a donut when you see me.

The Gasaway no-more-Roses kit 
1. Have each player retake their SAT or ACT when they hit campus in early summer of their freshman year. If a player’s score has dropped by half a standard deviation (or whatever–let the applicable geeks craft the ukase here) from the one they used to gain admission, forward their case to either ETS or the laudably eponymous ACT, Inc. The NCAA could charge member schools a tiny surtax to be forwarded to the now more robustly staffed test police so that investigations yield results inside of the roughly four-month window between the start of summer and the start of practice.

2. Don’t let family members fly for free.

(Yes, I realize the ultimate no-more-Roses fix is to allow high school players to proceed directly into the NBA. However, that reform is entirely at the mercy of David Stern and the NBA Players Association. I work with the tools I have at hand, people.)

“Calipari”: Henceforth synonymous with “maddeningly lucky” 
Also note that Calipari’s status as the highest-paid coach in the profession is a function of, from his perspective, an extraordinarily and indeed almost impossibly fortuitous confluence of events. I’m not worried about other coaches now saying yes to calfeasance because, even if they’re foolhardy enough to do so, the likelihood that it will yield them Calipari-level results is tiny.

For starters, in order for Calipari to become coach at Kentucky, former UK coach Billy Gillispie, obviously, had to be fired. Not only that, I am convinced that Gillispie had to be fired before news of the NCAA’s Memphis probe leaked. Two conditions had to be met here, and neither of them were a sure thing. Far from it.

The chances that Gillispie would fail to get to the NCAA tournament with a team featuring Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson would have been rated in advance, correctly, as very small. Go figure, it happened anyway, in large part because the Wildcats simply couldn’t hang on to the rock. Then there’s the fact that even at 8-8 in a down SEC, Gillispie still might have been able to hang on, however feebly, at least one more season had he not behaved like such a boorish jerk to ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards and pretty much everyone else in view. 

So Calipari was lucky at Gillispie’s expense. Even that degree of good fortune, however, pales in comparison to the luck Coach Cal enjoyed with respect to the NCAA’s investigation of Derrick Rose. Arguably the single most shocking aspect of this entire episode is that it stayed entirely quiet all the way up to the evening of May 27, 2009. Maybe it was a failure of journalism; or maybe people just don’t leak the way they used to.

Either way it’s amazing. A partial list of the entities that were aware of this story as early as October 25, 2007, would include: 

–Chicago Public Schools Internal Audit Division
–Illinois Office of the Inspector General (apparently displaying rare Blagojevich-era competence)
–Educational Testing Service
–University of Memphis
–University of Kentucky 

(Note the October 2007 date for the initial sounding of the alarm. Seth Davis of muddles this timeline to the detriment of his otherwise understandable point, that a team told by ETS that its star player may have faked his SAT will, unavoidably, find itself painted into an unenviable corner.)

In other words, men and women working for six different employers in six different cities scattered across five states knew questions had been raised about Derrick Rose’s SAT score–news that would have landed like a bombshell at any point in 2007-08–and yet, somehow, the story stayed under wraps for more than a year and a half.

Calipari could hit “replay” on 2009 and five times out of every six he would today be the head coach at Memphis, holding a tense press conference and defending his actions in the Fed Ex Forum. Instead he’s the toast of the Bluegrass State. He owes his job at Kentucky to the kind of lucky accident that no one should be able to count on in advance, that not one of the six organizations named above harbored within its walls a Mark Felt

Has Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart read Dr. Faustus?
Memphis says it will appeal the NCAA’s ruling. Good luck. The University is already on the record as agreeing with the NCAA that: 1) Rose was indeed ineligible (see above); and 2) the free flights and hotels provided to Rose’s brother, Reggie Rose, constituted “failure to monitor.” In fact the NCAA’s position is that “these trips rendered [Rose] ineligible from the point they were first received, December 14, 2007.” (At which time Memphis was in New York City participating in the Jimmy V Classic–remember the triangle-and-two USC played against the Tigers?) So either the season is wiped out in toto because of Rose’s SAT or it’s wiped out after the first seven games by his brother’s travels. Either way, any appeal is doomed. Memphis would do better to take the attorneys’ fees that will be wasted on an appeal and instead divide the money equally among the University’s 930 full-time faculty members.

Better still, be proactive and ship that money to Kentucky to kick start a legal defense fund in Lexington. If past events are any indication, John Calipari’s employer may well need such a fund someday.

How does this man keep getting hired? He’s excellent at what he does. He recruits elite athletes and, somehow, gets them to do that which hoops curmudgeons the world over say can’t be done “anymore.” Calipari gets these elite NBA-bound athletes to play defense. (The 2009 Missouri Sweet 16 game notwithstanding, obviously.) It worked at UMass. It worked at Memphis.

And it will work at Kentucky. But at what cost? 

BONUS record-straightening! 
Again, read the report. It’s just 26 pages, fully nine of which are devoted to the disturbingly chummy women’s golf coach at Memphis. The remaining 17 pages should give you the wherewithal to cut through a lot of folkloric clutter over the coming days.

For instance, Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News is more than a little disingenuous when he suggests that ETS’s invalidation of Rose’s SAT–and thus the balance of the NCAA’s finding against Memphis–was due in part to the fact that Rose failed to respond to notices sent by ETS to his home address in Chicago. An “action this profound, this lasting,” DeCourcy writes, “was undertaken at least partly because Rose didn’t get his mail.”

Actually an action this profound, this lasting, was undertaken at least partly because on June 23, 2008, Rose expressly refused to be interviewed by the Committee on Infractions. Then on January 5, 2009, his attorney received a final last-ditch request from the Committee for an appearance by Rose. The attorney never even responded.

I trust Rose’s attorney gets his mail. 

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