When my buddy, JH, pointed me to this Michael Powell story in the New York Times, about the decision of the University of Massachusetts to celebrate the achievements of its former men’s basketball coach, John Calipari, I had to laugh.
In brief – in 1996, Coach Cal led UMass to the Final Four. The school had not been relevant in basketball since the good Doctor J plied his trade there in the early 1970s. To celebrate that great run on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, the university is going to retire a jersey in Calipari’s honor.
The star of that 1996 squad was Marcus Camby, a terrific player who went on to have a long, productive NBA career. Come to find out, Camby was receiving large sums of money and other benefits from an agent or two while he was in college. It also turns out that, like other members of the ’96 team, Camby was struggling (or indifferent) academically. As a result of an NCAA investigation into the improper benefits, UMass was stripped of its final four appearance and fined.
As is absolutely par for the course, Calipari denied knowing any of this was going on. So, too, did he plead ignorance of the circumstances that led to the vacating of the Final Four run by his 2008 University of Memphis team, when star player Derrick Rose was found by an investigation not to have taken his own SAT test.
In 2008, Jason Zengerle wrote a long profile piece about Sonny Vaccaro, the sneaker impresario who played a central role in the hyper-commercialization of college athletics. Like NCAA godfather Walter Byers before him, Vaccaro became an apostate, decrying the unadulterated hypocrisy of big time college athletics, including the patently bogus claims of its industry leaders that they oversee an education-first enterprise:
“Vaccaro is revolted by…the insistence that the athletes are students, that the coaches are “teachers,” (and not “mercenaries” or “hired guns,” as he calls them) and that, “college sports,” as NCAA President Myles Brand has declared, “is not a business”.
Vaccaro also told Zengerle that he held dirty secrets about programs the length and breadth of the land. He was hesitant to reveal them, however, because the focus would invariably be on rule-breaking by players themselves, or on their academic struggles. Media would focus on the immediate and salacious details of a given scandal, not on the larger structures responsible for the ethical compromises that ensnare virtually every big-time program and result in the players being treated as the disposable assets they are.
In its own way, the recent decision by UMass to honor Calipari encapsulates perfectly the rot of the enterprise. Calipari has, while constantly preaching accountable, selflessness and team, lived in a consequence-free universe, never responsible for the consequences of his own misdeeds, or negligence. At the moment of truth, this leader of men, like so many others, has claimed not to have been a leader at all, but instead an innocent bystander when a program from which he garnered so much glory faltered on his watch.
If this is the kind of leadership UMass wishes to celebrate, so be it (and as Powell notes, it is amazing that, even in 2015, UMass feels the need to trot out all the BS NCAA defenses about graduation rates to defend Cal’s record at the school 20 years ago). But the clearest message their decisions sends is that, when it comes to a successful coach, the notion of accountability is little more than a punch line to a joke.