Kentucky Basketball: Millionaire Heaven

By Shannon Crawford


Calipari holds class on the Kentucky bench. (Photo: The Lexington Herald-Leader)

He was 6-foot-10 and made dunking the ball over nearly as big defenders look like a simple task. Daniel Orton was ranked as the third best high school center in the class of 2009 and the 22nd best payer in the country. During his senior year he had no shortage of coaches asking him to come to play for their programs, but he decided Billy Gillespie’s team at the University of Kentucky was best for him. He committed to Kentucky on October 12, 2008, but before had the chance to suit up for the Wildcats, Gillespie was fired.

“It was extremely frustrating,” Orton said. He thought about switching programs, until John Calipari, Kentucky’s newly appointed head coach, showed up at his door in Oklahoma City. “I’d be glad to have you on the team,” Calipari said. Orton said he was convinced. “I committed to a school, not a coach.”

Orton was one of five freshmen who came to play for Calipari during the coach’s first year at Kentucky. The newly formed team won 19 straight games and made it to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament. “Coach Cal knows how to get the most out of his players,” Orton said.  But for four of the five freshmen, the most they would get out of college was one year. Orton, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe all entered the draft. They were all selected in the first round.

Calipari would later say that draft day changed the entire direction of the University of Kentucky program. When he arrived in Lexington, he brought with him the era of the one-and-done player. “It’s definitely part of the culture of the team,” Orton says. “Five to six guys leaving for the N.B.A. each year, it’s not something you see everywhere.” While Calipari surely did not invent the policy, there is perhaps no other coach who has benefited from it as much as he has; it has made him one of the most polarizing figures in college sports, even if the surprise return of six freshman from the NCAA runner-up this season represents a temporary change. To many of his players, he is valuable because he can prepare them for the N.B.A. To many administrators, he is invaluable because he can fill arenas. But to many others, the fact that he makes over $5 million each year by appealing to the hoop dreams of 18 and 19-year-old recruits makes him a target.


His freshmen sometimes invoke Calipari's prayers. (Photo: New York Post)

His freshmen sometimes invoke Calipari’s prayers. (Photo: New York Post)

John Calipari’s first head coaching job came with the University of Massachusetts in 1988. He led the Minutemen to five consecutive Atlantic 10 titles and NCAA tournament appearances. In 1996, he took the team to the Final Four. That year’s tournament appearance was later vacated, however, when the NCAA discovered that the team’s star center Marcus Camby had accepted cash from sports agents. Calipari was never implicated. He went on to coach the New Jersey Nets the following year.

In 2000, Calipari returned to college ball. He accepted the head coach position at the University of Memphis, although he had his eye on the spot at University of Kentucky. When Tubby Smith resigned from Kentucky, Calipari waited by his phone, expecting a representative from the school to call with an offer. The phone did not ring.

“In 2007, it was a prestige program,”Jerry Tipton, a sports writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader said in a phone interview (all sources for this story spoke over the phone or by email). “If there were questions about a candidate, they could look elsewhere.” Under Smith, Kentucky had failed to recruit the talent necessary to compete in the Southeastern Conference. With Gillespie, Kentucky’s next hire, the program continued to flounder. Gillespie lasted only two years. This time, Kentucky did call Calipari.

But in 2009, another of Calipari’s famous players found himself in trouble. The NCAA accused Memphis guard Derrick Rose of having another person take his SATs, rendering him academically ineligible and forcing Memphis to vacate that year’s Final Four appearance. Again, Calipari was not implicated. The University of Kentucky said it knew about the situation before itsigned Calipari, but Tipton said he is not sure this is the case.

Regardless, Calipari and Kentucky were brought together at last, and it obviously is a good match. On June 5, 2014, he signed a new seven-year contract worth $52.5 million, the university said. He will earn $6.5 million next season and $7 million in 2015-16. Only Mike Krzyzewski of Duke earns more in college basketball.

When Dr. Justin Nichols heard how much Calipari was going to be making, he was shocked. A professor of Kinesiology at the University of Kentucky, he watched as his colleagues were laid off because of budget cuts. “How are we justifying this?” he asked. He began researching contracts, and found that only $400,000 of Calipari’s annual salary would be paid from the basketball program’s budget (a figure that is still a quarter of a million dollars higher than the state governor’s salary). He discovered that fees from broadcasting rights and endorsements accounted for majority of the contract. “I don’t know that it’s a good thing,” Nichols said. “But I don’t know what we can do to stop it.”

Private moneychoosing to invest in the rights to put Calipari on television or posters seems to be an example of the free market at play. Eli Capilouto, the president of the University of Kentucky, said,“There is without a doubt a marketplace for all positions.” None of Calipari’s salary comes from tuition or tax dollars, Capilouto said, and only a small amount of it comes from the team’s other revenue sources. “It is generated by media rights sold because of the success of the program,” he added. “So, in effect, Coach Calipari generates the bulk of his own compensation.”

Indeed, his program brings favorable returns to the university. The K-Fund, a fundraising organization within the University of Kentucky athletics programs, says the mens’ basketball program takes up almost 14 percent of the athletic program’s budget, or around $13 million annually. The team brings in roughly $23 million each year in gross revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some of that money is used to fund academic scholarships and projects, and Capilouto says that funds are not the only thing the program brings to the school. “For many people, across our state and our country, athletics is the front porch to the institution. It’s how they get to know us.”

The big dance is a Calipari trademark. (Photo: Google Images)

The big dance is a Calipari trademark. (Photo: Google Images)

The school’s sports programs gave Dr. Steve Parker his introduction to the University of Kentucky. Parker used to listen to Kentucky football and basketball games on the radio as a child, and later played for the school’s football team from 1971 to 1974.  Now an associate dean and an assistant professor at Kentucky, Parker has researched the flow of money that supports collegiate athletic programs. He analyzed incoming donor dollars at schools that had NCAA violations, expecting to find that punishment from the association would mean less money coming in from supporters. Parker found that even the NCAA’s power to inflict the “death penalty” by banning a team from competing for a year had little effect on charitable contributions.

“There’s a market for everything,” Parker says, and in the University of Kentucky’s market, despite the fact that he has seen two final four appearances vacated, Calipari is a solid business decision. “He has the ability to make money for the program,” Parker says. “He is probably the most well-known person in Kentucky.” 

By bringing his larger-than-life persona to Kentucky and reviving the Wildcat’s elite status, Calipari has also revived the Big Blue Nation’s famous fan base. “From the outside looking in, it looks great,” Kentucky senior and Editor-in-Chief of the school paper Rachel Aretakis said of the culture that’s been formed around the men’s basketball team. “But you have people who only care about basketball.”

When people only concentrate on their team, there are bound to be a few blind spots. The Lexington Herald-Leader exposed cash payoffs to Kentucky players in a 1986 series called “Playing Above the Rules.” The paper won a Pulitzer Prize, but some in the Lexington community responded negatively. The staff found a bullet hole in a window of thenewsroom, and received other threats, said Tipton.

As for the players on Calipari’s team, Aretakis says they are more athletes than students. During Calipari’s time at Kentucky, ten players have taken the one-and-done route so far (which Calipari has called “succeed and proceed”), and more players overall have gone to the draft than graduated. “He’s made more millionaires than Wall Street over the past couple years,” Nichols said. But then there is concern that these players never get the chance to succeed academically. Many faculty members and fellow students say there are certain majors basketball players are forced to choose because they fit their schedule (Aretakis says communication is popular). The NCAA rule limiting teams to 20 hours of weekly practice is treated as more of a guideline, Nichols says. Optional workouts and practices are often considered more important than schoolwork to the players. “There’s this let’s just keep them eligible mentality,” Nichols says. Dr. Ben Withers, the director of the university’s honors program, says even the players who show great academic promise — he cited John Wall as an example — do not get the opportunity to participate in the program due to athletic conflicts.

For the fans, issues like these are not necessarily the priority. “Winning, that’s the bottom line,” Tipton says. “There’s a lot of things fans want, like high GPAs and avoiding embarrassing situations off of the court. But primarily, it’s winning.”

Harrison and Calipari just missed in the '14 title game. (Photo: The New York Times)

Harrison and Calipari just missed the national championship in 2014. (Photo: The New York Times)

In Calipari’s office, a sign hangs on the wall. “All I can do is coach my team,” it reads. “He is one of college basketball’s all-time best coaches,” Josh Pastner, head coach of the Memphis’ men’s basketball team and former colleague of Calipari said. “And in the very near future, he’ll be in the Hall of Fame.” At the end of each season, proof of his success comes with a new flock of top recruits andrumors with a possible jump to the N.B.A.

Meanwhile, Orton still waits for his chance to show a professional franchise that he can perform. He was cut from the Philadelphia 76ers this year. “I never saw myself as a one-and-done player,” he says.

“There’s times when I’m glad I made the decision,” Orton says. “There’s times when I think I should have stayed.”

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