The NCAA marketing machine was running smoothly in New Orleans on the game's biggest and brightest stage, taking in gobs of money with a stunning and ruthless efficiency at every turn in its "commercial model." At the very same time, the NCAA sent out some mixed messages about its "collegiate model."
At the center of that stage stood Kentucky coach John Calipari, fighting perception and reality at every turn, and having the audacity to tell the truth about the manner in which he does his job.
To many detractors, Calipari embodies what is flawed with the modern college game. When some see him and see the procession of future pro players who come to campus and leave without a college degree, they see the professionalization of college sports. It's a theme that contrasts starkly with the stance taken by the NCAA.
During the championship game, Calipari coached his team of talented young players just a few feet away from NCAA president Mark Emmert, and other suited members of the NCAA men's basketball committee sat at a scorer's table that doubled as an electronic billboard for NCAA-approved messages. One advertised next season's Final Four in "Alanta." (No, that's not a typo.) Another, ironically, read: "Farewell, Dumb Jock Myth."
The purpose of the latter ad, of course, is to promote the notion that modern basketball players absolutely care about earning a degree, that they are students first and foremost. And yet there stood Calipari, coaching up the players the NCAA president seems to suggest have no interest in being in college and attend universities only because they are forced by an NBA rule. Some believe these players make a mockery of education, and others believe they are just using college as a steppingstone to the pros. Calipari was coaching that crew in college basketball's biggest game, a game some believed he could not win with so many one-and-done players, players who supposedly harbor selfish agendas instead of playing for the name on the front of the jersey.
With so many mixed and jumbled messages on the floor of the Superdome, it might be hard to reconcile all of these elements and what they mean for our collective view of Calipari. Here's what it means to me: Monday night revealed to us all an elite coach who molded perhaps the most unselfish team in college basketball, a team that accomplished what no other team in college basketball history had accomplished. Kentucky's young Cats won an NCAA-record 38 games and a national championship with three freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup. And they did so with six players who averaged between 12 and 15 points in the NCAA tournament, and a freshman as national Player of the Year, national Defensive Player of the Year, national Freshman of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four (without scoring in double figures in the title game).
Calipari has been to four Final Fours, including two NCAA title games, and has won a national championship. Now, with the soft light of the national championship illuminating all of his past failures as great successes, Calipari is looked upon as much more than a winner. He is looked upon as a champion. And that is exactly what he is.
In winning, Calipari shattered the perception that he could not win the "big one" and that you cannot win a title with players focused on being pros in the days (or years) to come. Calipari established that dealing with the perceived agendas attendant to the one-and-done culture is no different than dealing with players of any age with pro aspirations. If any talented and athletic group plays unselfishly, plays hard, plays together, and concentrates only on winning and staying in the moment, greatness can be achieved. Should it matter that this same group will never be together again, when the brief time they were together produced such a magnificent journey and the shining example of a true team?
Some would say, yes, it does matter. John Calipari simply rubs some people the wrong way. Some have a Pollyannaish view of the world of college athletics. Others simply believe that Calipari is only about winning, that he found a "loophole" in the system and will do or say whatever it takes to recruit mercenaries to win. And still others believe that Calipari is not a great coach, but rather an elite recruiter of top-tier talent, and is unabashedly selling the NBA after just one semester at Kentucky, education be damned.
Of course, the truth is much more complicated than that. Calipari is a great basketball coach, both from an X-and-O standpoint and as an organizational leader. Few coaches in the game can take so many new and young players of any talent level and mold them together into an efficient unit, a true team. Calipari has done that for three years running, with three very different teams, and has won an absurd number of games.
Quite simply, other coaches pitch elite recruits in the same fashion as Calipari, but Coach Cal is honest and forthright about the fact that he does not find there to be anything wrong with young people dreaming of becoming professional athletes. He encourages his players to dream and helps them accomplish their dreams, while at the same time offering them the same opportunity to go to college -- just like any other institution that parrots the NCAA party line.
Calipari didn't make these NBA or NCAA rules, but he is living by them. The NBA draft eligibility standards are not his doing, yet he has found a way to recruit elite talent. He did not formulate the NCAA's academic progress rate, yet his program has a better graduation rate than Wisconsin and a higher APR than both Wisconsin and Florida, among others. So, by the NCAA's measures, Calipari is hitting the mark. Some people just don't like that he talks publicly about keeping players' NBA ambitions in mind while others hide it.
Calipari is honest about the process. He does not suggest to players that they are "students who just happen to play basketball as an avocation." He understands that it is more complicated than that, and that this multibillion dollar industry is not just about playing for fun. Think about it: Do you believe the NCAA's rehearsed line that athletes are students first and just happen to be athletes? Or do you believe Calipari when he says it is OK to have big dreams as long as you work to make those dreams a reality, play the right way, be a great teammate, and take care of your responsibilities on and off the floor along the way?
That choice is yours. But I know which perspective I'd choose.