NCAA tournament final: Mark Emmert, John Calipari are two of a kind

John Feinstein
April 6

The best and worst of college basketball — and all college athletics — was on display here this weekend.

The best, as always, involved players making remarkable plays in both semifinal games, making everyone forget for a little while that AT&T Stadium is a dismal venue for college basketball. Whether it was Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright completely shutting down Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin or Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison turning into the best clutch shooter this tournament has seen since Christian Laettner, the basketball on display was spectacular.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

That was the good. The bad was two men who in different ways have come to define everything that is wrong with college athletics.

It isn’t Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s fault that the one-and-done rule exists. He didn’t make the rule; he just perfected it. But now, as he stands on the doorstep of winning a second national title in three years, he thinks the solution to the rule isn’t to fix it but to re-label it.

“Let’s call it ‘succeed and proceed,’ ” he said Friday, the day before his team stunned Wisconsin, 74-73, on Harrison’s three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left.

Calipari must be a fan of Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who wanted to change everyone’s view on global warming by calling it “climate change.”

Or perhaps Calipari is an admirer of Mark Emmert, the NCAA president who goes about his work like a used-car salesman. Emmert believes if you refer to football and basketball players as “student-athletes” 4,000 times a day, people will believe everyone playing in this tournament is going to get a degree in rocket science and there is no reason to grant any of them any rights at all.

Emmert was at it again Sunday. When asked a question about the Northwestern football team’s attempt to unionize, Emmert bristled as only he can. He called the notion of a union “grossly inappropriate” and went on to insist that “most people” don’t like the idea. He meant to say that most overpaid administrators (like him) don’t like the idea because why pay a workforce anything or guarantee it any rights at all if you can get the work done for free?

Unionization “would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics,” Emmert insisted.

Good. It needs blowing up.

Never was that more evident than Saturday night in a building that is about as suitable for basketball as it is for opera. For most fans, getting to and from the place was nearly impossible. The shuttle-bus system people were advised to use didn’t work. One driver took fans to American Airlines Arena, which would be fine if they had been trying to get to an NBA game but was 19 miles from where the Final Four was being played.

Once fans arrived, most had awful seats. The NCAA bragged about the record crowd of 79,444 but made little mention of the terrible sightlines most fans had.

This is college basketball 2014. It is the Age of Cal because, regardless of what his Kentucky team is doing, he keeps it and himself in the spotlight nonstop. And he can refer to his players as “student-athletes” with a straight face even though they will never come close to a degree. Why should they? They’ll be millionaires in the near future.

When Kentucky won the national title in 2012, Calipari made sure everyone knew the one-and-done rule wasn’t his idea.He had just figured out it could be a great recruiting tool: Come to Kentucky for a year, learn from a very smart coach and be NBA-ready the following June.

Of course, when Kentucky went into the tank a year ago and ended up losing a first-round NIT game to Robert Morris, Cal correctly pointed out his group was too young and not tough enough to handle adversity.

And then came this winter. It started in the fall with talk of the greatest freshmen class in history. T-shirts proclaiming a preordained 40-0 record magically appeared. They became harder to find when Kentucky lost to Michigan State in November and was 1-1.

Kentucky struggled all winter, losing 10 games. Calipari publicly criticized his players for lacking passion, for failing to lead, for being so young. It was Calipari who decided to have a young team every single year — no one forced him to embrace the one-and-done rule so fervently. But when it seemed to go bad for a second straight year, it certainly wasn’t his fault.

Now it’s all good again. Cal loves his student-athletes. He’s upset outsiders were so critical of them in February. On Sunday, he said the best thing about his $5.5 million-a-year job was that he got to help kids and their families.

It was enough to make you cry.

It is the collegiate model Emmert so fervently defends that has allowed Calipari to become a $5.5 million man who can say almost anything and have people nodding their heads in assent and crying, “A-men, Coach Cal, A-men!’

That and the fact he’s a superb basketball coach.

On Monday night, we will see the best of what is a wonderful sport. We will see two excellent coaches — Kevin Ollie with 51 career wins, Calipari with 42 vacated career wins — and two teams that have played their hearts out to reach the season’s final 40 minutes.

It will be, no doubt, a wonderful spectacle.

And then the game will end and the hypocrisy of it all will again be evident. The corporate “champions” will take control. The “official ladder of the NCAA” will be brought out to cut down the nets.

If Kentucky wins, Emmert will present the trophy to Calipari. The two men will embrace. As they should. They deserve each other.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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