In Memphis' locker room shortly after its heartbreaking overtime loss to Kansas in the 2008 national championship game, forward Chris Douglas-Roberts tried to console teammate Joey Dorsey by telling him, "The Fab Five never won a title."
Douglas-Roberts' belief was that the Tigers were an iconic team, like Michigan's 1992 and '93 squads, that wouldn't be forgotten despite their lack of title rings. He most certainly wasn't expecting that the Tigers, like the Wolverines, might eventually have to vacate their title-game appearance. The irony in that analogy is now thick.
If the allegations brought forth by the NCAA on Jan. 16 (and made public Wednesday in a letter obtained by the Memphis Commercial Appeal) are true -- the most serious of which is that a player, which a source indicates is star point guard Derrick Rose, committed "knowing fraudulence" by having an "unknown individual" take his SAT -- then Memphis will likely have to vacate the entire '07-08 season for using an ineligible player. Douglas-Roberts' and Rose's missed free throws late in that '08 title game were widely considered to be karmic retribution for Calipari poo-pooing the media's obsession with Memphis' poor free-throw shooting on the season. But perhaps those misses were preemptive intervention by the basketball gods, in order to avoid having the first championship vacated by the NCAA. (There have been 10 Final Fours vacated due to violations, but never a national title.)
Beyond the record books, though, who gets hurt by these allegations, which also state that an associate of an '07-08 Memphis player was provided with $2,260 in free travel with the team?
Not Rose. His image is unlikely to be sullied in his hometown of Chicago, where he justified being picked No. 1 overall in the '08 NBA draft by leading the Bulls into the playoffs and being named Rookie of the Year. He won't be able to go back and get his degree at Memphis -- with three-plus years to go, that was improbable anyway -- and he'll be unfit for any endorsement deals with Kaplan or the Princeton Review. He'll always have Adidas, though.
The Memphis program is the most likely to face sanctions, but it has been going out of its way to distance itself from the situation. Athletic director R.C. Johnson said Wednesday night that no one in the current program -- especially new coach Josh Pastner, who arrived for the '08-'09 season as an assistant -- is involved, and that the Tigers don't expect to lose scholarships. Someone could lose an administrative job for letting the unnamed player's "associate" fly on the team plane without paying, but that someone would likely be a small fry. The NCAA's allegations didn't include the dreaded "lack of institutional control" label for Memphis, which is a good sign.
The man that matters most here is John Calipari, who left Memphis to become king of Kentucky. The alleged violations happened during his tenure, but it's doubtful he'll be penalized as a result. The NCAA's letter doesn't link Calipari to fixing the SAT (and a Chicago Sun-Times report indicated Kevin Johnson, a former teammate of Rose's at Simeon High School, is suspected of taking the test). Memphis has known about the allegations since January, but still offered Calipari a ton of money to try to keep him from leaving; and Kentucky said it knew, too, and still felt good enough to give Calipari an eight-year, $31.65 million contract. In a statement released Wednesday, Calipari said, "Even though I'm not at risk, I will fully cooperate with the NCAA hearing," which is scheduled for June 5-7 in Indianapolis.
Calipari was reaching God-like status in the Commonwealth despite having been on the job for barely more than two months. He was made the highest-paid coach in college basketball, and earning it in the eyes of Wildcats fans. He convinced a top 20 draft pick, Patrick Patterson, to stay in school for another season. He convinced two five-star big men, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton, to sign in his first recruiting class despite the possibility of Patterson's return. He convinced two five-star point guards, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, to sign in the same recruiting class and compete for playing time. He started a Twitter account and in no time, amassed more than 100,000 followers. In a Tweet to them late Wednesday night, he addressed the situation by writing, "I appreciate your passion. More importantly, I appreciate the faith you have in me. No one said this would be easy, but we will get there."
The hard part for Calipari is that, despite all the adulation he's receiving in Kentucky, he may be forever known in the greater college hoops world for an infamous reason -- as the only coach to ever have Final Fours vacated at two different schools. Calipari was cleared of wrongdoing when UMass' '96 Final Four was voided by the NCAA (for improper benefits given to Marcus Camby by an agent), and the coach isn't accused of any specific wrongdoing in the case of Rose. But can the fact that this happened twice on Calipari's watch -- to his best two teams -- really be perceived as a coincidence? Only the most naive fans could believe Calipari was ignorant of both situations. If the Rose allegations are true, all the work Calipari has done to rebuild his reputation since the Camby incident will go for naught.
In Lexington, whatever dampening, if any, this has done to Calipari's honeymoon period will be cured by winning, and he has one heck of a team coming in next season. A No. 1-ranked team, possibly. Besides, most Kentucky fans would rather ignore his past -- Memphis is not their team, and Rose was not their star -- and focus on the future of the Wildcats: Wall. Bledsoe. Orton. Cousins. Darnell Dodson, a four-star juco phenom.
That crew is the consensus No. 1 recruiting class in the nation for '09-10. Calipari's first class is so good, it's been compared to the Fab Five -- on the basis of talent, of course. Wall is so good, he's been compared to Rose -- on the basis of talent, too. But given what's happened, should we be worried about the other parallels?