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Two of a Kind

Two of a Kind

Two of a Kind
The Gold Sheet

When in Northern Kentucky two weeks ago, we stopped by the Borders at the wonderful Crestview Hills Town Center and were a bit surprised...then, we weren't (after all, we were in Kentucky), to see the store aggressively promoting a visit by UK hoops coach John Calipari, who would be stopping by Borders on September 1 and signing copies of his new "Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Survive in Business and in Life" book between 11 AM and 1 PM. The requirements to actually meet Coach Cal and get a signed copy of the book were to buy one at the store. We assume anyone who comes by the Crestview Hills Borders this afternoon who wants to meet Coach Cal, but doesn't want to shell out the $25 to buy the book, will be out of luck.

We didn't stop by the Borders on 4th Street in Louisville when on the trip, but we assume the promotion and the rules are the same for when Coach Cal visits that store later this afternoon, between 5 and 7 PM. Just a thought, but from the title of Coach Cal's book, we wonder if local resident Rick Pitino might stop by the Borders on 4th Street later this afternoon for his own signed copy. At the moment, Pitino could certainly use a bit of advice in overcoming setbacks.
We're really not sure what to make of Calipari and Pitino these days, other than the fact that we still regard the two as shameless self-promoters. We're not even sure that either is a great basketball coach; successful, yes, but great? Not necessarily. Yet it's their recent situations, and reactions to them from fans around Kentucky and elsewhere on the college basketball map, that have us more intrigued.

For what it's worth, we still think there's a darned good chance that Pitino won't be coaching at Lousiville this season, the reasons which we'll expound upon in a moment. As for Coach Cal, we're positive he'll be coaching at Kentucky this season, and probably for at least the next few years, maybe longer. And he might even win an elusive national title along the way. But we side with the many Kentucky people we know who acknowledge that somewhere down the road, Coach Cal will probably get the Wildcat program into some trouble. What we find curious is that most of them don't seem to care, as long as Coach Cal delivers lots of wins and an NCAA crown or two in the next few years. The subsequent coach can worry about any sanctions.

What we find most amusing, however, is reaction from fans across the country who seem to think Kentucky folk are the only ones willing to overlook Coach Cal and Pitino's recent transgressions and continue to embrace them in their basketball-loving midst. That's not necessarily true on a couple of fronts; the first being that Pitino is hardly being granted a mulligan by lots of Louisville fans and citizens. And second, we'd bet a lot of basketball fans around the country would be willing to overlook the sort of transgressions that they accuse the Kentucky faithful of ignoring if their own favorite teams were posting impressive winning records.

During the course of our summer travels, in which we were in the early stages of writing a book about the 1963 national title game between Cincinnati and Loyola-Chicago, we discovered a lot of information about a lot of past teams and coaches that would cause most fans to drop their jaws in disbelief. Including back-channel gossip about what went on at a particularly storied hoop program in its glory days. Safe to say that fans of that team and its sainted coach would have a hard time swallowing the facts. But if they could, we doubt they would react much differently than the Kentucky fans they accuse of looking the other way regarding Calipari's past inglorious deeds.

Unlike Kentuckians such as Governor Steve Beshear, we certainly aren't about to give Calipari a pass for the shenanigans that apparently went on at Memphis, which have caused the Tigers to vacate their runner-up trophy and return their money earned from the 2008 NCAA Tourney. (Actually, we think the school got off pretty light in this case, but that's a story for another day.) We've got some oceanfront property in Phoenix to sell anyone who believes that Calipari was in the dark about the SAT test-taking of top 2007-08 recruit Derrick Rose, the subject of Memphis' recent problems.

Consider that Rose was only the top recruit in Calipari's Memphis career, an NBA-ready talent who could perhaps steer the Tigers into the Final Four before, like Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse five years earlier, skipping merrily into the pro ranks. The only problem for Memphis was that Rose had failed to achieve acceptable scores on his first three stabs at the SAT in his native Chicago to gain admission to the university.

Now, really, does anyone in their right mind believe that Calipari wasn't aware of what was going on with Rose's test scores?

Eventually, Rose got around to taking the SAT once more, on a trip to Detroit to watch a Pistons playoff game. Geez, don't a lot of Chicago kids go to Detroit to watch the Pistons, and stop off to take the SAT along the way?

Even though the evidence is circumstantial, we hardly believe this all happened without Coach Cal knowing what was going on. After all, one of Calipari's good friends has significant ties in the Motor City...and it's none other than Wesley Williams, AKA "Worldwide Wes," one of the most mysterious and connected characters in the sordid backwater of college hoops recruiting.

If the NCAA didn't want to connect the dots and implicate Calipari, it doesn't mean those dots don't exist. We'd be more than shocked if Calipari didn't know exactly what was going on with Rose and his test scores. And we wouldn't be surprised if "Worldwide Wes" were somehow involved, too.

It all reminds us of the days 40 years ago when perhaps UCLA's most-touted football recruit of all time, a monster running back named James McAlister, was similarly fingered for mysterious testing that included, among other things, an abnormal amount of erasures on the answer page. The implication was that someone had doctored McAlister's answers so that he could score acceptably enough on the standardized test to gain admission to UCLA. McAlister, who didn't have the option of turning pro in his sport after his first year in college as did Derrick Rose, was suspended for his sophomore season, which in those days (1971) was going to be his first year of varsity eligibility. And we're sure that similar scenario has gone undetected and unpunished more often than not. Rose and McAlister are hardly the only athletes to have serious questions surrounding their standardized test scores. And Calipari is hardly the only coach to be implicated, indirectly or otherwise, in such situations.

But if we don't want to admire Coach Cal for his coaching or his self-promotional bent (if you don't believe us on the latter, we suggest you go to the shameless, perhaps we should admire his ability to say a step ahead of the posse. After all, Calipari had already been indirectly implicated in a similar scenario earlier in his career, when his UMass team featuring Marcus Camby was also forced to vacate its Final Four appearance...after Calipari had left to coach the NBA's New Jersey Nets. Now, his Memphis team has also been forced to vacate its Final Four appearance...after Calipari has once again left town, this time for Lexington. Indeed, Calipari has turned his peripatetic ways into something of an art form. We can hardly recall a coach consistently staying a step ahead of the NCAA law and continue to climb the coaching ladder while leaving so much scorched earth behind him.

We're also not surprised to see some segments of the sports media come to Calipari's defense. We won't begrudge anyone for not stepping forward to criticize Coach Cal, but those who crave access to Calipari and believe it's their duty to protect him are really doing nothing but confirming our long-held suspicions that they're not much more than a bunch of sycophants masquerading as writers, reporters, commentators, or whatever form of "expert" they claim to be. Which really is no surprise from a group that would still rather throw Bob Knight under the bus for general boorishness than take a Calipari, Pitino, or Kelvin Sampson to task for some real transgressions.

We find it a bit harder, however, to swallow what Pitino's defenders (admittedly fewer than Calipari) have to say about the recent off-court problems surrounding the Louisville coach. Nor do we believe the many shallow media reports of an overwhelming majority of Cardinal fans willing to give Pitino a mulligan for his transgressions. To the contrary, it's our belief that a lot of decent Louisville folk, who once embraced Pitino, are deeply troubled by his actions, and are becoming more disappointed in the Card coach with his subsequent behavior on the matter.

(For the record, we still have something a soft spot for Pitino, as this is a man who once lost his 6-month old son, and later his brother-on-law during the 9/11 tragedy; he's known his share of heartaches, and for those experiences we have been able to mostly overlook his self-hype. But that hardly exonerates him from the latest episode playing out in the media these days.)

Granted, Pitino isn't the only one in the crosshairs in this situation, with the other party in the whole mess, Karen Sypher, accused of extortion. For her, a federal courtroom awaits, with the backdrop of prison time. The stakes for Pitino are not that dire, but his reputation could be sullied even further, depending upon what comes out during the trial. It's ugly all the way around, but just because there's another party in this mess hardly exonerates Pitino.

And it doesn't get more tabloid-like than Pitino's tale. He isn't the only married guy who's ever had a tryst with a fetching female. Doing so on a table in a restaurant, however, is a bit of a different twist on that age-old tale. Add in the subsequent abortion from that one-night (?) stand, Pitino's financing of the procedure (or, if you believe Pitino and his lawyer, it was just payment for an insurance-related matter), the fact she subsequently married a Louisville Cardinal equipment manager (to whom she is now in the midst of divorcing), perhaps at the behest of Pitino, who subsequently attended many social functions with Sypher and her soon ex-husband Tim. Not to mention the extortion charge against Sypher.

No wonder the press can't get enough of this story! And Pitino seems to be the only guy who can't figure out why.

Sorry, coach, but you can't have it both ways. You can't have the press lap up all of your self-hype, help you sell books and seats at your motivational seminars, and promote the Pitino "brand" at almost every opportunity, and then hope to have them ignore this affair that gets more seedy and intriguing every week, can you?

We suspect that the problems might have just started for Pitino. Any chance that the story would fly under the radar and go away on its own, like some other nuisance stories regarding celebrity types, disappeared over the summer when details of the tryst, and subsequent abortion/insurance payments, came to light. Pitino's massive ego has already worked against him in this regard, with his hastily-arranged news conference last week putting the story back in focus for yet another news cycle. Pro-life types, of which there are many (and that includes many Catholics, like Pitino) in the Louisville area, are already lobbying for his ouster. AD Tom Jurich and school president James Ramsey, though both maintaining that Pitino will retain his position, seem to be doing a little backpedaling, Ramsey in particular when admitting he was "surprised" to hear of the latest specifics (including the Sypher abortion). Bureaucrats such as Ramsey and Jurich are sensitive to public opinion, and even more sensitive to any negative national publicity, which the story is now generating for the school. It's one thing for the story to get space in the Courier-Journal and local Louisville TV stations, it's quite another when Katie Couric is talking about it on the CBS Evening News, or when national outlets such as CNN and ESPN begin to run Pitino's problems as a headline story.

We also thought it was curious that soon after the first Sypher stories hit the news wires back in spring, that Louisville quietly arranged for the respected Ralph Willard, who has recently coached with success at Holy Cross, to join Pitino's staff as an assistant. More than a few observers believe that Willard provides a nice fall-back option and coaching stop-gap for the school if Pitino is forced to resign.

We still think there's a better than 50% chance that Pitino won't be coaching this season. If Pitino thinks the local media has been rough on him, wait until he hits the Big East road trips. Some of those venues are snake pits to begin with; throw in this tawdry affair with the hot blonde, and who knows how ugly it might get for Pitino this season. All of that, we're sure, isn't lost on Ramsey or Jurich, whom we suspect would both probably rather not go through that awkwardness if they can help it. The only way out, however, might be for Pitino to be gone. All we know for sure is that we haven't heard the last of the story. Stay tuned.

And what would happen to Pitino is he did lose the Louisville job? We suppose he'd be radioactive for a while, but would soon find another employer willing to give him another platform for his brand and his coaching. We just don't think there are going to be as many buyers as in the past.

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