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UMass should vacate decision to honor John Calipari

John Calipari, now at Kentucky, led UMass to its only Final Four appearance in 1996, which was negated by the NCAA because of, among other things, academic probation.Getty Images

It's Calipalooza for the University of Massachusetts Athletic Department this week. John Calipari, UMass's former head basketball coach — a man who took the Minutemen to their greatest heights and lowest depths — will be honored Tuesday and Wednesday at events in Boston and Amherst.

What an embarrassment for our state university. You'd think our UMass officials would have as much good sense as the president of the University of Memphis, who canceled a Cal celebration after initially thinking it would be a good idea to honor college basketball's all-time bag man.

Not our guys. Not here in the Hub of the Universe, and the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our guys are going full steam ahead with the two-day event to honor a man who oversaw a program that broke rules and treated academics as an afterthought.


Tuesday night at the Colonnade Hotel is your chance to enjoy "An Evening with Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer John Calipari." For a mere $300, you can rub elbows with Coach Cal and listen to stories of the golden days of UMass basketball, when Calipari took the Minutemen to the Final Four. That was one of the more thrilling sports stories of 1996 and it remained a wonderful memory right up until it was learned that star player Marcus Camby already had turned professional while he was still playing for UMass. Camby had a couple of agents and had been the recipient of cash, thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, and the services of prostitutes while he was playing for coach Cal (Camby's jersey number already is retired at UMass, so go figure).

There was more. UMass players' transcripts obtained by the Globe in 1994 indicated that there was a significant problem in the classroom: Camby and three teammates played while they were on academic probation. Last March, Steve Satell, a former tutor for the UMass basketball program, told the New York Times, "Coach Calipari could have created a great academic program, but he ruined it. And the university was absolutely complicit.'' A Connecticut AAU coach who delivered many players to Calipari at UMass told the Times that Coach Cal's recruiting philosophy was, "If you qualify, we want you. If you don't, we still want you.''


After the Camby disclosures, the NCAA spanked UMass, fining the school $151,000 and forcing UMass to erase its Final Four appearance. In NCAA parlance, UMass's Final Four appearance was "vacated.'' It never happened. Cal was long gone when the sanctions came down. After the Final Four, he bailed on UMass, signing a $15 million contract to coach the New Jersey Nets.

None of this is problematic at UMass. Here they are, 20 years later, raising money for the basketball program with a "night" for Coach Cal, which will be followed by a halftime ceremony Wednesday when Calipari's name will be raised to the rafters at the Mullins Center on campus in Amherst.

"We are very excited to celebrate Coach Calipari and his family for his many contributions to our rich basketball history and his remarkable Hall of Fame career that started at UMass,'' athletic director Ryan Bamford said in a statement Nov. 10. "December 15 and 16 will be special days for this university as we remember a truly golden era for UMass basketball.''

I enjoyed the 1996 UMass run as much as anybody. My UMass friends wouldn't trade it for anything. I get it. Those were great times to follow UMass basketball and it was exciting to have a local team in the Final Four. But we eventually found out that the whole thing was a deal with the devil that poisons big-time college sports. In the end, we were no different than bandit programs we mocked at UNLV and New Mexico. And now our State U is honoring the man who was in charge during the scandal.


UMass is not the only blemish on Cal's NCAA résumé. After failing in the NBA, Calipari returned to the college game and soon had Memphis in the Final Four.

But guess what happened? It turned out that somebody took an SAT test for Memphis's best player (Derrick Rose) to make him (Rose) eligible for college and the NCAA came back and vacated Memphis's NCAA appearance.

Two NCAA Final Fours. Amazing.

After getting out of Dodge again, Cal landed in the blue-green grass of Kentucky, where he runs an NBA farm team disguised as the Kentucky Wildcats. He gets all the best high school players and many of them make it big in the NBA. Kentucky annually contends for the NCAA championship. No vacancies. Yet.

Cal is on a roll. He was AP college basketball Coach of the Year last year and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield in September.

In was in September that the University of Memphis (formerly Memphis State) hopped on the Cal train, announcing that Memphis would hold a "great homecoming" for Calipari in December. A firestorm ensued. One day after the announcement, Memphis school president David Rudd withdrew the invitation, stating, "I apologize for the unnecessary upset, embarrassment and genuine distress generated by the issue of honoring Coach Calipari . . . To see your level of upset and distress has deeply troubled me . . . We will not be recognizing Coach Calipari at the University of Memphis.''


Bravo, Prez. We could use some of this leadership here in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

But no. Instead we get a $300 per ticket night at the Colonnade, a halftime celebration Wednesday night at the Mullins Center. Yahoo.

I traced down Bamford Sunday and asked him whose idea this was.

"The decision pre-dated me [Bamford arrived in April], but I totally support it, based on what John's done for UMass,'' said the AD. "It was an athletic department decision. I don't know honestly who made the final decision . . . it was supported by our university, our chancellor.''

Any reservations on your part to go ahead with this?

"No. None.''

Any negative blowback from alums or anyone else?

"No. I have not received anything. I have not received any e-mails or calls discouraging us from pursuing this.''

Armed with this information, I checked with UMass president Marty Meehan. Like Bamford, Meehan was not around when this decision to honor Cal was made. Meehan, a sports buff and a Massachusetts lifer, became president of UMass July 1.


"In the four months I've been on the job as president of the system, I haven't got one complaint about this from the Amherst campus,'' said Meehan. "The Amherst campus, the faculty, the dean, the students, they're not shy. Calipari is very involved with UMass. He's raised significant money for UMass. He's contributed to UMass. And we're a university that needs to get more people to come back and do that.''

Any reservations or misgivings about this?

"No. The University is going to go forward and have a positive event that helps the University move forward.''

OK, then. Sounds like a swell time for everybody.

Follow Dan Shaughnessy on Twitter at @Dan_Shaughnessy.