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.
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