Memphis, Kentucky Athletic Directors Bungle John Calipari Situation
Lost amid the kerfuffle overtaking John Calipari, Memphis, and Kentucky is the question that everyone should be asking: Is your average athletic director smart enough to handle their job given the intense pressure and attention that now descends upon the position?
Most are old jocks who've risen to prominence through equal parts glad-handing and reminiscing about the good ole days. They aren't particularly skilled in the black arts of modern-day communications or even, necessarily, at managing multi-million dollar businesses. I've wondered about this for a while, but the ham-handed way that R.C. Johnson of Memphis and Mitch Barnhart of Kentucky have dealt with the John Calipari imbroglio, has convinced me that neither of these guys are up to the job with which they've been entrusted.
Let's begin with Memphis' Johnson. He has his master's degree in P.E. from Northern Iowa. I'm sure there are all sorts of brilliant people in charge of multi-million dollar businesses who chose to pursue graduate studies in P.E., but I can't think of any. His actions at Memphis confirm this opinion. First, he allowed Calipari to insert language into the letters of intent that his players were signing that allowed the players out of the deal if Calipari wasn't there any longer; this is unheard of. Secondly, he waged a war to keep Calipari at Memphis without firing the shot that would have ended Kentucky's pursuit of Calipari immediately, releasing the NCAA letter of inquiry.
It absolutely boggles my mind that Johnson didn't leak this letter when Calipari began flirting with Kentucky. Memphis received the NCAA's letter in January. Did they really think they were going to appear before the NCAA infractions committee and no one was ever going to find out? All Johnson had to do was leak the letter in the week after the basketball season ended and Calipari would have been at Memphis for another five years. It would have taken that long for this mess to blow over. What did Johnson have to lose by doing this? Calipari wouldn't have left for Kentucky -- the Wildcats likely wouldn't have taken him -- he might have lost some recruits but given Coach Cal's abilities as a snake-oil salesman, he probably still could have convinced the recruits to come to Memphis.
Instead Johnson rounded up the boosters, increased his financial package, engaged in a futile pursuit of Calipari, and ended up settling on a young replacement who is most famous for sitting next to Miles Simon on the bench at Arizona.
Swing and a colossal miss.
If he didn't want to leak the letter because he believed it violated his moral code, he could have called Coach Cal into his office and said, "Here's the deal, we'll increase your salary by $500,000 and I won't release this letter to the press. We'll stand by you through the investigation. You can sign right here. Or you can get on the plane to Lexington and before you land, it will be on the front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader Web site. They'll drop their pursuit of you and we won't give you the raise, but we'll still be happy to have you as coach."
Instead, the Memphis athletic department is on the hook for everything that Calipari has ever done at Memphis and the coach gets away with merely a dark cloud chasing him to Lexington.
Does this make any sense? R.C. Johnson couldn't have bungled this situation worse if he'd been intentionally attempting to sabotage his own program. But, and this is key, Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart makes R.C. Johnson's masters in P.E. look like a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.
Barnhart raises incompetence to a whole new level.
First, let's be clear, whether you think Billy Clyde Gillispie is an uncouth idiot or not, his memorandum of understanding is valid. Kentucky's going to have to pay him a large percentage of the $6 million he's sued for before all is said and done. Don't let lawyers who have a dog in the fight try and convince you that this isn't a contract; lawyers will argue for whoever pays them the most. Right now both sides of the lawsuit are playing the media to convince non-lawyers that the other side is full of crap. That's normal. But, trust me, as an impartial observer, Gillispie has the much better position in this lawsuit. There's an offer, there's an acceptance, and adherence to the terms of the deal for two years. That memorandum is a functional contract. Everything else is just noise.
But what the hell is Barnhart thinking anyway? Who signs a coaching deal with someone and then refuses to expand upon a two-page memorandum because they want to be able to get out of the contract? Seriously, that's unbelievable. If you have that many reservations about a coach, how in the world is he your top choice? Making a decision like this convinced me that Barnhart was in over his head.
The subsequent interviews Barnhart gave this season convinced me of that even more. Barnhart was borderline unintelligible. Tubby Smith bailed out Barnhart by bolting for Minnesota, otherwise, Barnhart would have found a way to deed Rupp Arena to Smith and his representatives before that contract buyout was finalized.
Now, Barnhart and crew signed Big John even though they supposedly knew about the looming NCAA investigation. I know, I know, they claim that they cleared it with the NCAA. (Which, by the way, isn't permissible). They claim that Calipari assured them he had nothing to do with it, (Calipari: "Well, that depends on what the meaning of the word "know" is.") Really, when you get right down to it, Barnhart was so desperate to sign a big name to replace Billy G., he wouldn't have cared if Calipari had a side business smuggling Cambodians to Mexico. That's fine, but if you're a Kentucky fan don't you think you deserved the right to know that Coach Cal was on his way to ending up with two Final Four banners being stripped? I think so. The fact that they signed Cal without ever disclosing the investigation is a sham. They acted under the cover of night, because they likely believed they wouldn't be able to sign Calipari otherwise.
There's no doubt Coach Cal is smart, but he looks much smarter because he's playing three-dimensional chess against such weak bosses. That's how he managed to skip clean at UMass and Memphis while the programs crumbled in his wake. It's high time fans start paying more attention to the heads of their athletic departments, and demand something more than mere competence. They need someone smart enough to match wits with the smartest of coaches.
I can name 15 diehard Kentucky fans right now who would do a better job as athletic director than Mitch Barnhart. Same with Memphis. If you have any reasonably intelligent friends who happen to be fans of either program, you can probably do the same. With all the attention paid to coaches, and all the power they're accruing in today's collegiate game, isn't it more imperative than ever before that the man who is their ostensible boss have some semblance of ability? Gone are the days when athletic directors could be back slappers and good joke tellers, it's time for a new generation of athletic directors to take the reins. Guys who can do something more than negotiate great deals on tetherballs.