clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Soundtracked: John Calipari's Career, On The Eve Of Kentucky's Final Four Appearance

New, comments

Every life needs a soundtrack, and John Calipari's is The Royal Scam by Steely Dan. As Calipari prepares for his third Final Four, this one with Kentucky basketball, Spencer Hall details how nine songs explain all you need to know about the controversial coach.

Getty Images

Steely Dan released The Royal Scam in 1976. In that same year, Rupp Arena, Kentucky basketball's home court, is also opened. The two have no connection. John Calipari is in high school, and thinking about college. It is not known whether he is a Steely Dan fan, though he does have a friendship with Drake. This by all estimates a sign he is not a fan of Fagen and Becker's work. 

The Royal Scam's track arrangement follows. So does John Calipari's identity in nine songs.

Kid Charlemagne

Clean this mess up else we'll all end up in jail...

You are probably most familiar with this chapter of Calipari's life as a basketball coach: the hint of scandal, the working at the fringes of the basketball world prior to Kentucky in order to ply his craft, the formulas he uses that few other coaches do. The song's namesake refers to Owsley Stanley, a notorious acid dealer in San Francisco who like Calipari was accused of wrongdoing by others, but rightfully pointed out time and time again that he was doing nothing that was technically against the rules. (At least for the time: LSD was outlawed, and Stanley did eventually spend a few years on involuntary federal vacation.)

Calipari has managed to continue selling his own disorienting brand of basketball and program management despite a pall of allegations surrounding him. He told a recruit Lou Carnesecca he was dying. He donned a rubber mask, wore stilts, and had his skin surgically darkened so he could pass as Derrick Rose while taking the Memphis star's SAT for him. His greatest triumphs evaporate in puffs of backdated NCAA smoke; his NBA draft picks are overshadowed by the horrendous graduation rates. 

His stays are longer than one might think; after all, he spent seven years at UMass, nine at Memphis, and appears to have settled as well as any coach could into the half-deity's role of head basketball coach at Kentucky. But like a rogue chemist on the run, Calipari cooks his product quickly, sells like a huckster pitching milk a day from the expiry date, and keeps in motion constantly. There is recruiting, and tweeting, and hands to shake, and mysterious fixers to meet. There is always the next deal, and then the suspicious eyes of rivals and bystanders alike glowering at implied crimes without fingerprints, evidence, or witnesses.

Like Kid Charlemagne himself, he is alone in his field. His science is nonpareil. His commodity, unlike a thousand other coaches who pitch the school, the tradition, or the team itself, is himself. For traditionalists fond of the Boeheims and Krzyzewskis of the world, he is a deserving outcast and fugitive from decency. For others, he is the last honest man in basketball precisely because he is not a college basketball coach. 

He is a chemist, and a great one at that.

The Caves of Altamira

Can it be this sad design
Could be the very same
A wooly man without a face
And a beast without a name
Nothin' here but history

If you bring up the vacated titles as Calipari's mocking legacy, clearly you're the kind of person deeply concerned with history. Calipari's two previous Final Four visits resulted in two vacations, a literal obliteration of your team's titles from the record books of the NCAA. This passes for justice in the name of two violations of the NCAA's code of amateurism: Marcus Camby's taking money from agents, and Derrick Rose's SAT case at Memphis.

You can sit around mooning about at cave paintings and wondering about the path of history. Calipari can't and won't say this in as many words, but in his own way he is a genius of minimalist economy. He is a great basketball coach who has stripped down the arcane political economy of college basketball to a brutal formula. Play for him, and you can leave after one year to become a professional where you will make more money than most people will see in their lives. You will do it by winning, too, and then he will repeat this formula until he cannot repeat it anymore.

There is zero mythological John Wooden to this. Worry about history and the ghosts of a college basketball past if you like, but that's dry paint on a cave wall as far as he's concerned. Calipari is in every sense immersed in the now. An education is secondary; becoming a professional is the first goal and the primary one, and Calipari has turned everywhere he has been into a one year finishing school for NBA hopefuls. Most others are functioning on a Paleolithic understanding of college basketball. Calipari belongs squarely to this savage present, another unpardonable sin in some quarters.

Don't Take Me Alive

I know you're out there
With rage in your eyes and your megaphones
Saying all is forgiven
Mad Dog surrender
How can I answer
A man of my mind can do anything

A song about a man holding off an entire town's worth of police in a standoff. Calipari, on his enemies:

"There are times I get mad and want to strangle somebody, and then I go to Mass and say, Stop me from having this feeling that I want to absolutely punch this guy in the face," Calipari says. "I'm from Pittsburgh. You come at me? I come at you twice. You hurt one of mine? I'm burning your village."

A man of his mind is capable of a lot, including dwelling outside of a lot of college basketball's social circles, conventions, and traditions. Sometimes Calipari pitching himself as the primary value of his basketball program may be rank egoism. It may also be the approach of a man who having weathered controversy and tumult now only depends only on himself as the foundation of his professional success.

That we as fans vacillate from a personal belief in the power of the individual to a nearly sacred belief in the value of teamwork is largely dependent on whether we like the focus of our vision. Is Calipari the lone gun? Not entirely. Though his coaching tree isn't as lush as Pitino's for sure it does exist. He counts some friends in the coaching profession, and many more beyond it. As the SI article details, he's prone to showing up unannounced and welcomed at their sickbeds for long visits, to sending notes of support when needed, to filling out the profile of a good man in private and unheralded ways.

One person's mad man is another's martyr. The angle determines a lot about how you'll see him. Calipari may be perpetually under siege for his tactics, but he is no lone gunman, and certainly not the person whose egoism overrides the product teams pay for. His Memphis teams won 20 games a year for nine straight seasons. His UMass teams' talent-to-performance ratio would have broken calculators if properly calculated. His 2011 Kentucky team is the eyeball favorite to win the tourney at this moment.

If he wins, though, his detractors will just see the lone madman, and not the team he brings with him. Individual achievement is, after all, only good if I like the player or coach concerned, and in the negative becomes selfishness, egotism, and "a me-first attitude." We as a nation like me-first until we don't like the "me" concerned. But John Calipari already knows this all too well, since a man of his mind can do anything, especially when he's long since ditched the concerns of detractors.

Seriously, Calipari is a sort of Ayn Rand Objectivist protagonist in the worst and best ways, though better written. So is a lone gunman at the top of a tower, which is sort of the problem with extremely individualist arguments. For my money, if I had to pick a basketball coach who would end up in a fiery shootout with the police, it's still Bob Knight holed up in a golf bunker with a 12 pack of beer, a rifle, and a red sweater with a flak jacket beneath it.

Sign In Stranger

Do you have a dark spot on your past
Leave it to my man he'll fix it fast
Pepe has a scar from ear to ear
He will make your mug shots disappear

You zombie
Be born again my friend
Won't you sign in stranger

So he--and whomever "Sign In Stranger" is really about--they're dinged, damaged goods, dodgy contraband. Calipari's been there, and he's had his mug shots evaporate with time, opportunity, and the kind of forgiveness the natural process of forgetting begets. Kentucky, an illustrious program with championships and a championship-grade history of epic probations and rules violations to match, may have ultimately been the scoundrel's best refuge since they understood all too well. The argument that Kentucky had to take a chance on Calipari is devoid of truth: in truth, after Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie, Calipari's brand of ruthless recruiting and rakish public demeanor was the safe choice. 

Pirates understand pirates, which is precisely why Kentucky, a fanbase and organization expecting victory constantly, found a coach in complete agreement with their institutional philosophy. If Calipari ends up with a third vacated Final Four, they won't care. They would have one the game and lost ink. Ink fades. Memories do not. 


No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on
Oh no
No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on
Oh no

A song about always wearing a condom to have sex made by a rock band in the 1970s lets you know that the rock musicians in question were beyond geeky, since it was the '70s and I don't even think astronauts wore helmets on spacewalks back then, and rock musicians in the pre-AIDS era certainly didn't do their groupie skin diving wearing a wetsuit.  

Relevant to Calipari in two respects:

  1. Calipari's tidy romance of the college basketball system may be clouded by rumor, but that's it. Run the tests, Maury: the scandal-baby is his, since whatever Calipari does he does safely and with multiple barriers between him and contagion. If he's a cheating spouse, he is a very considerate and methodical cheating spouse.
  2. The hair. A fez is a hat, and while a metaphor in the song, let's focus on the hat Calipari wears all the time: the pure gel swipe, front to back control held in place by some heinous product likely purchased from chemical wholesalers. It is the hairdo of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, the executive's power 'do for someone who grew up in the 70s and came to maturity in the '80s. A lot of these guys went to jail for insider trading, fraud, and fast words that turned into piles of glorified pyramid schemes. You want to know one reason why you may not trust John Calipari? That hair, the dated coiffure of a Northeastern corridor confidence man who may really have a pair of brass balls in his briefcase.


Green Earrings

Cold, daring
No flies on me
Sorry, angel
I must take what I see

Really just a song about desire and wanting something shiny, and certainly well within Calipari's general M.O. Take Memphis, and the case of the amazing Calipari door.


That's the flip side of the modern coaching story. You may get someone like Calipari, but you might as well set up the digital camera in the parking lot if you do. Ambition will force someone like Calipari both to and through that door, either because he drives you a step too far for the NCAA's liking, or because you tire of realizing you, the school, we be at best a partner and at worst a servant to their whims. There are coaches who sincerely want to be a part of the institution, and there are coaches who are the institution and merely partner with branded schools in short-term ventures.

Calipari is the institution here. Kentucky, for the moment, is the partner, and the partnership is going swimmingly by all accounts. The door, however, will always be there in the back of everyone's mind, and it should be. Cynical or realistic, it is as much a part of the contract as the wins.

Haitian Divorce

You're going to learn something today. Prior to the fall of the Jean-Claude Duvalier government in Haiti in 1985, divorce was one of Haiti's prime industries. Legally recognized in New York, California, and Massachusetts,  divorces filed between American couples in Haiti were cheap, fast, and allowed couples to work in some vacation while they ended their eternal agreements. This song is about one of those and an unfortunate resulting one-night stand resulting in a bastard child.

Charles Pierce wrote this in a scathing piece on Calipari in Slate.

He wins and then, poof! He's disappeared from history, like a dead pharaoh fallen out of favor or a general who displeased Stalin. And, if Kentucky wins this thing and you picked someone else in your pool, just be patient. Appeals might be pending for a couple of years.

Like a Haitian divorce, Calipari's separation from the damage done in his former relationships is not universally recognized, and varies state to state. It also has the exotic whiff of danger, scandal, and a legal code others might not understand or endorse. Either way, when it happens there is one guarantee: it will be quick, and people will ask questions.

(Calipari has probably also been accused of using voodoo and other dark arts to recruit players and dazzle befuddled NCAA investigators.) 

Final note of tangential relevance: the legendary Bernard Purdie plays the drums on "Haitian Divorce." Like Calipari, he is the first to explain himself to you: 

Purdie has a pair of signs he posts on either side of his drum set. One reads: "You done did it!" The other: "You done hired the hitmaker." Now please place these on either side of Calipari on the bench, and see if they don't look all too right bookending him. 

Everything You Did

You never came to me
When you were so inclined
Yes you could have told me everything you did baby
I know where baby's at
I know your filthy mind
Now you're gonna do me everything you did baby

A confessional: a woman has cheated, and the narrator demands to know the details. No, this has nothing to do with Calipari, or how he keeps getting hired despite those oft-mentioned vacated Final Fours and the rumors, or how in the end he manages to keep pitching, keep seducing, keep getting the yes he wants at the end. The song ends with the narrator demanding the exact same treatment the cheater gave to their last lover. Noooo, absolutely nothing to do with Calipari's relationship to his prospective employers. Move along. No parallels whatsoever. 


They looked upon the promised land
Where surely life was sweet
On the rising tide
To New York City
Did they ride into the street

See the glory
Of the royal scam

Basketball is split between Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams. It is a sport of the American heartland and tiny brick gymnasiums surrounded by cornfields and earnest men in hornrims, or it is the balletic streetball played by inner city minority kids who see every basket made as a hammerstrike through the wall separating them from the life they want, or it is some uneasy tension between the two. It's beautiful and slightly sad either way like any sport played by young people with dreams, hopes, and all the other things that tend to evaporate in the heat of existence. 

Earlier this week we were listening to Bomani Jones and he insisted Calipari's reputation had something to do with him being Italian. This is probably somewhat true. If you want an arbitrary number attached to its value as a part of a whole, let's put it at 20 percent, 30 percent tops. It is there, but Calipari's heresies exceed the crimes of his ethnicity.  

The truth is that college athletics as a whole is a scam, a fraudulent and inherently flawed exchange of labor for the value of a degree that does many athletes little good in the long run. The failures leading up to this point can't be tackled here: they border on the sociological, and require entire books' worth of explanation.

What can be is Calipari's role in this particular Royal Scam, and that he more than any other coach revels in its excesses, its greed, the mean carnivorous business at the heart of college sports at its highest levels. The song is about immigrants discovering their own royal scam: working in the cold dark of New York City for little or nothing, taking a chance on the long odds of becoming the one to make it out. This is the same offer college athletics offers young athletes hoping to make it to the pros: long odds, cold mornings, and a distant shot.

(If they like, they can get a degree, too, but that is not part of the equation for many, and even when it is the degrees are often in majors chosen for ease and compatibility with athletics. Rex Grossman got a degree in Leisure Studies while he was at Florida. So did a lot of athletes. I don't think it was their first choice, but four straight bowl games and an SEC title later no one seemed to care.) 

That is the brutal truth of college athletics, and it wears a mask in most instances. Calipari makes little attempt to wear a costume. The Royal Scam has a kind of glory to him, and like animals that succeed he has evolved to fit his circumstances. He may indeed be everything his detractors say, but he cannot be accused of hiding his fangs. They are right out there for all to see. He'd be happy to show you, actually. Come closer. No, just a little closer. Yessss. Right there.