Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This isn't your father's NCAA

When Billy Gillispie eschewed a happy home at UTEP for the allegedly prestigious trappings of Kentucky I thought he was making a big mistake. After just two seasons, Kentucky pulled the plug on Gillispie and they seem poised to lure John Calipari away from Memphis. This is a big mistake for Kentucky. Calipari is too in love with himself to pass up the job. He’ll go to Kentucky, act like he’s god and in about four years he’s going to realize that Kentucky’s trustees and boosters aren’t willing to change their ways.

Gillispie was in the middle of rebuilding the Kentucky program to succeed in the modern era of college basketball. That’s where teams embrace the so-called one-and-done players who only play in college because the NBA insists that they wait a year before joining the league. Old school coaches want to establish continuity and recruit upstanding citizens who believe in the school and want to play for four years. That’s a formula that just isn’t working. Just ask Duke about it.

Granted North Carolina and UConn are in the Final Four and they feature allegedly old school coaches as well as players who seem committed to the names on the front of the jerseys, and Michigan State managed to bully its way into the picture with a bunch of guys that probably don’t pique the interest of most NBA scouts. While it’s true that experience goes a long way in the tournament, athleticism matters too. Experience doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the athletes to get you there. So balance is the key. Coaches can’t focus entirely on NBA ready talent, but they shouldn’t limit themselves to players who have to spend four years in college either.

By all accounts, Billy Gillispie was doing a good job as far as recruiting, but because Tubby Smith tried to recruit four year players who wanted the honor of playing for a storied program, Gillispiie faced the challenge of opening doors that Kentucky simply hadn’t knocked on before. Players are committing to programs earlier and earlier. For some reason the NCAA doesn’t see a problem with coaches cultivating relationships AAU clubs and tendering scholarship offers to players before they even play a varsity game. That forces a guy in Gillispie’s situation to either focus on a four year plan or betray a lot of trust by coaxing kids to renege on early commitments.

Gillispie made his own bed. He had a pretty sweet deal with UTEP. Fans and trustees don’t expect a sweet 16 finish every season but they still value a good coach who keeps their team competitive. Gillispie thought the grass was greener at Kentucky because he was caught up in the mystique of that program. But that mystique was in his own mind.

Calipari, like most coaches, craves the spotlight and at Memphis it’s not on him all the time. Memphis plays in a smaller conference so Calipari’s not a celebrity until his team makes the Tournament. At Kentucky, Calipari have all eyes on him throughout the season. Especially in his first season or two, where people would be curious to see how his game holds up in a tougher conference. Calipari, however, had better hope success comes sooner rather than later.

Players today don’t care about history. It’s likely that they never really did. I can only speak for myself, but when I was of the age that these players are committing to colleges I thought four years ago was ancient history. Because when you’re 16 it is. When I was 12 I was a lot more interested in watching Thundar the Barbarian than I was in the Final Four. That changed quickly but when I did start taking an interest in watching sports I couldn’t be bothered with educating myself as to who won the title three years earlier.

My perceptions were shaped by the adults I knew and what my friends were thinking. I didn’t know anything about Adolph Rupp at the time. I was trying to find a team I could identify with and being a Cleveland-area boy I took an interest in Cleveland State because around the time I started enjoying sports as a spectator Cleveland State was in the process of upsetting Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. Even so, I was much more enamored with the NBA because the players were better and the games were more fun to watch.

I know, there are college basketball “purists” who argue the point and insist that the fundamentals of the college game are better. That’s a load of crap. 99% of the players playing college basketball right now couldn’t mop the locker room floor in the NBA. LeBron James, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard would cruise through the NCAA tournament 3 on 5 and not one game would be close.

So it’s not surprising that great players want to get to the big stage as quickly as possible. Especially before some egomaniacal college coach ruins them by putting his own interests ahead of the interests of his players. That’s a huge problem in college hoops. Coaches are driven by ego. It was the reason for Bobby Knight’s demise at Indiana, and it is undoing Coach K at Duke. If Calipari leaves Memphis for Kentucky his ego will ultimately do him in as well.

Kentucky’s run in the sun could be over. Besides all of the shady deals—the hiring of parents and AAU coaches, the offers of scholarships to friends and family—players are lured to luxurious facilities and national exposure. Nobody cares about the history of Cameron Indoor, kids aren’t going to fall in love with Rupp Arena. They want to know how many games you play on national television and how often you get into the NCAA tournament. Forget about the “college experience”; where’s the bling?

Right or wrong, that’s how it is. Most people go to college to get something in return. They hope that they can parlay the time they invest at school into a bigger salary when they get out. Ambiance and history are secondary to that. Why should athletes be any different? College is a means to an end and the programs that will be successful in the future will be the programs that get players where they want to be faster.

So Kentucky can save the history lesson for the fans and get down to the business that is basketball. The tables have turned, the four year plan is gone. The best players in the country are calling the shots, the prolonged exploitation of the athlete pretending to be a student is over. One-and-done is the norm. Until places like Kentucky and Duke learn to accept that and embrace it, success will continue to elude them.

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