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TOO SLICK, TOO LOUD, TOO SUCCESSFUL WHY JOHN CALIPARI CAN'T CATCH A BREAK
S.L. Price
March 14, 2011
The NCAA hasn't held him accountable for any major violation, and dark rumors about his recruiting methods have never stuck. Still, no matter what good the Kentucky coach does—visiting the sick, helping at-risk kids—he's assumed to have an ulterior motive
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March 14, 2011

Too Slick, Too Loud, Too Successful Why John Calipari Can't Catch A Break

The NCAA hasn't held him accountable for any major violation, and dark rumors about his recruiting methods have never stuck. Still, no matter what good the Kentucky coach does—visiting the sick, helping at-risk kids—he's assumed to have an ulterior motive

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In the late '90s, when it became clear that Dajuan Wagner—Milt's son and Wesley's godson—would be a top prospect, Wesley was determined that history not repeat itself. He was living in Chicago then, and Calipari, after a little more than two disappointing seasons with the Nets, had landed in Philadelphia as Brown's assistant with the 76ers. "When I was sitting there, watching a Sixers game, and I saw Coach Cal, I said, I'm going to see if he's going to get back into [college] coaching," Wesley says. "I approached Cal. We talked about Kevin Walls."

At Brown's urging Calipari took the Memphis job when it opened up in 2000. But the school's limitations were many—Calipari still talks about the train tracks running through campus—and he realized that landing Wagner, then the nation's top junior, would entail a package deal. Dajuan was extraordinarily close with his best friend and housemate, forward Arthur Barclay, and, says Wesley, "where Arthur Barclay went to school, Dajuan was going to school." Meanwhile, Milt Wagner was looking to get into coaching. Calipari signed Barclay and hired Milt as his coordinator of basketball operations. The following year Dajuan enrolled at Memphis for his one college season.

Calipari endured much criticism for the moves, but Wesley didn't care. He was more interested in what happened next. Calipari pressed Milt Wagner to finish his degree at Memphis, kept him on staff for four years after Dajuan left for the NBA and has made sure he has had work, first as an assistant at UTEP and now at Auburn. Barclay, meanwhile, had an underwhelming career at Memphis but graduated in 2005 with a degree in urban studies. To Wesley, with his mouth at many a talented player's ear, this was everything. It meant Cal takes care of his own.

"Love is an action," Wesley says. "You've got to show it. That's what Cal's done for his players, his coaches, and he continues to do it. If you call me and you have a son and you say, 'Who would you recommend?' I'm going to say there's one coach I trust impeccably."

Wesley is often credited with sending point guards Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans—along with Evans's personal strength coach—to Calipari, and many observers find the dynamic unsettling. Calipari was once quoted as calling Worldwide Wes a "goodwill ambassador" for the Memphis program, but he says that's wrong. "I said, 'For me, personally,' " Calipari says, adding that Wesley is also close with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Still, rivals don't like that Calipari has any inside edge; last year Pitino, appearing in a report on ESPN, all but called Wesley Calipari's secret weapon. "I'm losing a lot of players to Kentucky," Pitino said.

Both Wesley and Calipari scoff at the notion that their closeness creates some kind of unholy conveyor belt: Wesley gets players to Cal, who turns players into professionals, who then sign with Leon Rose at CAA. Dajuan did sign with Rose, but Evans and Derrick Rose are represented by Arn Tellem, and last year's No. 1 pick, Kentucky's John Wall, signed with Dan Fegan at BEST. "None of my best players have gone to CAA," Calipari says. "Look, in this profession everything is about the relationships you have, whether it's high school coaches, AAU coaches, pro players. Over 20 years, you create a lot of goodwill and friendships. That's what it is. If you're not being fair with kids, guess what? All those people over time build up too, and they're working against you."

But relationships can be sticky things, and few programs know that better than Kentucky's. The school has been on probation in every decade for the last 60 years, and its football program began serving a three-year sentence in 2002, just after Todd took over as president. He vowed that under his watch it wouldn't happen again. In 2007, when athletic director Mitch Barnhart brought up Calipari, Todd was so put off by Memphis's reliance on, as he puts it, "bogus high schools"—transcript-padding prep schools that the NCAA has since cracked down on—that he barred any contact. "I was uncomfortable enough," says Todd, "that I wasn't ready to do that."

In March 2009, Kentucky compliance director Sandy Bell was charged with rechecking the NCAA's assessment of Calipari's role in the UMass scandal, and she sat in on all his NCAA interviews during the Memphis investigation. She gave Calipari a clean bill. The relationship between Calipari and Wesley, meanwhile, had to be addressed. Before Calipari's hiring, Wesley called Bell "because," he says, "I knew people would say, 'Sandy Bell is going to get Worldwide Wes.'"

"Well, that depends, Wes," Bell told Wesley. "Here's how we do business at Kentucky: My goal is to make sure that Cal is successful here and does things the right way and that we document that he does things the right way. If you want the same things, I don't see why we can't work together."

Wesley flew in to see her in Lexington that spring. Calipari asked Bell to draft a letter outlining for Wesley what he could and could not do as the coach's friend. During Calipari's tenure in Memphis, Wesley had attended games with Calipari's tickets and sat behind the team bench. But because of Wesley's relationship with Gilchrist—he grew up across the street from Gilchrist's mother, and Gilchrist has vacationed with the Wesley family since he was a child—Bell asked the NCAA to review Wesley again, and then again once he took an official role with CAA. This year, because of Gilchrist, Wesley has not received any free tickets. He has called Bell whenever he's traveled near the team. Few will believe it, but in Gilchrist's case Bell is certain that Wesley provided no undue influence. "He tried to get Michael to go to Villanova, with his daughter," Bell says. "It's not that he's out recruiting for us."

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