College Basketball: Calipari's contract sends wrong message at wrong time
By Tim Dahlberg
While John Calipari was deliberating, Greg Bamberger was cutting.
The men’s soccer team at Kutztown University got the ax Tuesday as the Pennsylvania college moved to cut costs in the athletic department. So, too, did the swimming team.
“It wasn’t one of my best days as athletic director,” Bamberger said.
It wasn’t a good day in Memphis either.
Business leaders came carrying gifts and fans brought homemade signs to Calipari’s front yard urging him to stay, both to no avail. A local television outlet broadcast a mournful stream on its Web site of the door at the University of Memphis athletic department, but Calipari was already as good as gone.
Things were different in Lexington, where fans clad in Kentucky blue gathered at the airport to watch planes land, hoping Calipari would be on one of them. He was, lured to one of the most hallowed places in college basketball not by its great tradition but by cold, hard cash.
Reports varied, but they were all essentially the same. A million or two here or there didn’t matter much because when it was all added up it added up to this: Calipari will be paid more than anyone has ever been paid to coach a team of players who will get nothing more than some books and meal money as their part of the bargain.
Four million a year, maybe five. All for a guy whose next national championship will be his first.
Bamberger could have used some of that money, maybe even saved soccer and swimming with it. He runs the entire athletic department at Kutztown on about the same amount of money Kentucky will be paying every year to its new coach.
Like Calipari’s former school, the Kutztown Golden Bears had a good year on the court. The men’s basketball team went 28-5 and advanced to the Division II Atlantic Region final.
For that, ninth-year head coach Bernie Driscoll didn’t make enough to pay Calipari’s country club dues.
Surely, Kentuckians have noticed that the nation is teetering on the brink of economic calamity, and that one out of every 10 people in their state is unemployed. They have to know that companies are closing, people are losing their houses, and that even the president says things are likely to get worse before they get better.
Yet they stand and cheer when a taxpayer-supported university spends $35 million for a coach while at the same time the budget for professors and everyone else at the state’s universities is being cut 2 percent and the state is digging into its “rainy day” money to stop further bleeding?
Someday, historians are going to look back at this period and try to figure it out. They won’t be able to, because there’s no rational reason for the irrational exuberance of fans who simply don’t know any better.
What they will find is that on the last day of March in 2009 a school in Pennsylvania had to let two coaches who were barely making rent money go and tell two teams full of student-athletes that they no longer have a sport to compete in.
On that same day, they’ll see that a private jet whisked the new University of Kentucky coach to Lexington so he could formally claim his $35 million grand prize.
And they’ll have just one question: Just what were they thinking?