The ghosts of fouled Final Fours keep following John Calipari — and haunting the integrity of big-time men’s college basketball. With Calipari two games away from another Final Four with the University of Kentucky, the National Collegiate Athletic Association this week upheld the penalties it imposed on Calipari’s 2007-08 University of Memphis team. The team played in the national championship game, but the NCAA later determined that its biggest star was academically ineligible. The team’s 38 victories were stricken from the books, and the school must return $615,000 in tournament revenue to the NCAA.
If only this were the first time a Calipari team faced such penalties. In 1997, the NCAA voided the 1996 Final Four appearance of his UMass team, and the school had to return $151,000 in tournament revenues, because its biggest star received illegal gifts from an agent.
Smarting Memphis officials are now weighing whether to chase Calipari for his $360,000 in performance bonuses during the voided season. While Calipari has never personally been implicated for wrongdoing, neither has he been held accountable for the troubles on his teams. Basketball-rabid Kentucky has made him the most highly-paid college basketball coach in the nation with an eight-year, $32 million contract.
But he’s a poor role model. Among the teams in the Sweet 16, Kentucky graduates the lowest percentage of its African American players — 18 percent. The college game is tough on athletes: graduation has become a remote possibility, and illegal gifts of a few hundred dollars will disqualify them. Meanwhile, coaches are paid in the millions. When a John Calipari can reach such heights, it’s a sign of how low the college sport will sink.