The final horn hadn’t even sounded on Sunday before our beloved sports blabbocracy thematically defined this year’s NCAA hoops Final Four. It was to be the Cinderellas vs. the Sinners. In one game, the scrappy “mid-majors” Butler and Virginia Commonwealth would play. In the other, two historic programs competing under the shadow of scandal, Kentucky and UConn, were set to square off. No matter who wins their semi-final match-up, the finals would feature a contest of David vs. Goliath, good guys vs. bad guys, teams that represent “what amateur athletics are all about” vs. teams that—to believe all charges and rumors—treat the sacred NCAA rulebook like a roll of Charmin.
Each of the four squads has a head coach that neatly fits this narrative as well. Butler is led by boyishly handsome Brad Stevens, who is 34, but with a little mousse could be the missing Jonas Brother. VCU’s coach, Shaka Smart, just 33, loves the amateur game so purely, we’re told, he turned down admission to Harvard so he could play ball at Division III Kenyon College.
On the other side, you have two coaches only their rabid fan bases and (maybe) their mothers could love. UConn is led by the two-time NCAA champion coach Jim Calhoun. Calhoun was suspended for the first three conference games of the season for “failing to create an atmosphere of compliance” with NCAA rules. He may “retire” after this season, despite a $14 million contract that runs through 2014. But Jim Calhoun is Officer Friendly compared to the coach of Kentucky, “Teflon John” Calipari.
According to the NCAA’s history-writ-by-Stalin, this is Calipari’s first trip to the Final Four. But in reality, it’s his third. His two previous appearances, in 1996 with the University of Massachusetts and in 2008 with Memphis, were voided for multiple rules violations. According, to the NCAA they simply never happened. The programs were sanctioned, reputations were ruined and his “student-athletes” were left to bear the consequences. But Calipari just smiled those pearly whites, slicked back his hair and moved onto the next school. He’s the Typhoid Mary of coaches, infecting every program he touches. For LA Confidential fans, He’s “Rollo Tomasi,” the guy who gets away.
John Martin, sports editor at the University of Memphis paper, the Daily Helmsman, said to The Nation: “Coach Cal isn’t on anybody’s Christmas list. After Kentucky beat North Carolina last weekend to advance to the Final Four, there were literally dozens of threads on the main Memphis message board dedicated to Calipari and how much of a cheater and sleaze-ball he is. I don’t think anyone here blames him for taking the job at Kentucky. It’s a top-five job in college hoops. But the way he left—taking recruits with him, NCAA violations on the program as a parting gift—really made fans resent him.”
It’s sports-media cat-nip the scrappy, virginal underdogs against the ballers of Gomorrah. But before the media becomes too engorged on this Cinderella vs. Sinners narrative, it’s worth noting that while superficially true. It’s also fraudulent, moralistic hooey. To accept it, you’d also have to believe that Calhoun and Calipari are outliers and most programs are clean. You’d have to believe that no cheating could ever take place at a mid-major school. You’d have to accept that most colleges would never employ a coach like John Calipari. But more than anything, you’d have to believe that the NCAA is the nonprofit cradle of amateur athletics it professes to be. You’d have to believe that an institution that receives billions in television money while not paying players a dime is fundamentally moral. You’d have to believe that coaches receiving millions in sneaker money worn by unpaid players is a just and righteous state of affairs.
As former University of Maryland All-American Laron Profit said to me, “The great lie is that we are somehow still student-athletes. We are at best athlete-students, because the second we set foot on campus, it’s made clear to us exactly why we are on campus and what we are there to do. We are there to play basketball. Our scholarships are renewed on an annual basis—most fans don’t know that—and getting good grades won’t keep us on the team or keep us in school.”
Laron’s former coach Gary Williams was recently asked to explain his basketball program’s lack of success at the University of Maryland and he said simply, “I get yelled at because I don’t cheat.” Gary Williams is the actual outlier here and John Calipari and Jim Calhoun are the norm. They’re not outlaws. They’re the establishment: as much a part of the NCAA tournament as ubiquitous announcer Gus Johnson and the “One Shining Moment” song. The system is amoral and putrid. The NCAA is a plantation economy, a de facto minor league, and a rotting corpse of an institution that smells worse than mayonnaise left on the radiator. The best coaches are simply the most effective at smiling for the camera and pretending the stench is pure perfume.