[Frontpaged because, well, this is good. Very good. All formatting mistakes are mine - TI]
So the news of the day from Nashville is that a local five-star recruit has opted for Kentucky over Vanderbilt, and years of recruiting by Coach Stallings and the 'Dores have gone down the drain. Instead, Alex Poythress will head for Lexington and a program which, under John Calipari, seems to have become ground zero for "one and done" players - kids playing out the string until they reach the mandatory minimum requirements for NBA draft eligibility.
We're never going to be a one-and-done school. That's fine. We ought not be a one-and-done school. It's not who we are, it's not what we stand for. But we still have to play those schools - with one hand tied behind our backs. I don't blame Alex for making his decision, at all. I don't blame any kid for going to school wherever he wants to go, and God bless him - and that's why I don't care about recruiting until our guys are in the fold and on campus. But as long as there are schools willing to serve as the green room for the NBA draft, and we aren't one of them, we are objectively placing ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. We're playing the same sport, but we're not playing the same game. And it's been that way for a long time.
We found out what kind of program we have back in the mid-1990s, when Ron Mercer was being recruited. Nashville kid, from Goodpasture. Best friend of Vandy player Drew Maddux. Five-star talent. A sure thing on the court. A no-brainer get for us, right? Except that the admissions office declared that he couldn't get in, and he wound up - wait for it - at Kentucky. And played only two years there before going pro, but not before Kentucky won another NCAA basketball championship in 1996.
Now to some extent, this sort of thing has always happened. The occasional kid has come out after two years, or even one, for decades - but ever since the NBA mandated no high-school drafting, we know more than ever when kids are only stopping by for their one-year minimum. Kentucky may be the most prominent example - John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins - but consider that Kyrie Irving played less than half a season at Duke due to injury before being drafted. Or that Harrison Barnes at UNC was a pre-season All-American before taking a single dribble - and shocked the college basketball world by coming back for his sophomore year.
The inevitable result of all this is that the rich will get even richer. Kentucky, UNC, Duke - these are the perennial powers, the Mount Rushmore, the Yankees-Red Sox, the Manchester United of college basketball. And inasmuch as the top talent - the guys who would have turned pro right out of high school when that was allowed - have to go tosome program, they will go to the ones that can catapult them straight to the professional ranks, the established superpowers, the sure things. And the rest of us then have to compete against them.
That's half our problem.
The other half is occasioned by considering John Calipari, coach of Kentucky, who has left both his previous big-time coaching jobs (UMass, Memphis) with a Final Four banner and a cloud of scandal in his wake. Memphis had an incredible run a few years ago. 33 wins, into the national title game - and had it all stripped a couple years later on account of irregularities around the SAT scores of Derrick Rose. Who played, that's right, one year before being drafted #1 overall. Now Calipari is gone, Rose is gone, the banners are gone, and the 2007-08 season of Memphis basketball officially never happened - but there are over two dozen teams from that year who have losses they shouldn't have had. There's some team that should have gotten to the tournament, or the Final Four, or the national title game, or might have beaten Kansas and actually won the whole thing. But they didn't, because Memphis was there instead.
Or look at California's football team in 2004. The Golden Bears went 10-1 in the regular season, behind the kind of Aaron Rodgers performances we're all accustomed to seeing on Sundays now. Very nearly beat USC, in Los Angeles - probably would have done if the special teams hadn't gone pear-shaped - and finished ranked 4th in the country…but behind the Trojans. And when Mack Brown begged the Texas Longhorns into the Rose Bowl, and the Golden Bears missed out on their first trip in four decades, Cal got sent to San Diego and phoned in a soulless loss in the Holiday Bowl. And five or six years later, USC was stripped of the title, of the bowl win - it never happened. But Oklahoma and Auburn didn't retroactively get matched up in the BCS title game, and Cal didn't retroactively get to go to Pasadena, and the Cal Band didn't retroactively march up Colorado Avenue on New Years' morning.
Hell, just look at last year. When the saga of Cam and Cecil Newton broke, the firestorm was immediate, and people started questioning whether Auburn would sit their all-everything quarterback. But Auburn didn't hesitate - one 24-hour burst of ineligibility and reinstatement, and they decided, damn the torpedoes, we're going to ride this thing out and take our chances. And for their trouble, they ended up with a 14-0 record, a Heisman winner and a BCS title.
We have reached a point in college athletics where the dominant ethos appears to be "it's better to get forgiveness than permission." I've joked in the past that if Vanderbilt is going to remain in the SEC, we need to get out the checkbook and take this thing as far as it can go, and spend 2013 watching Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman kill and eat quarterbacks while Johnathan Gray rips up the turf and Jameis Winston throws lightning bolts to Dorial Green-Beckham and Stefon Diggs.
And I was kidding. Mostly. But what can you do? If you play by the rules, and try to honor the front part of "student-athlete", you're going to be playing shorthanded. And if it turns out one of your opponents did wrong in the course of beating you, you're not going to be made whole by the NCAA in any meaningful fashion - if at all.
Look, we are an anomaly. Big-time. We're the only football team in the conference without a major violation in the last twenty-five years. We've graduated every men's basketball player who exhausted his eligibility for thirty years. We've never had a single athletic program placed on probation. So what do we do? Do as well we can and hope for the best? Hope that we - and the rest of the world - will take pride in fifth place, earned on the square and level? If the game is fixed, how can we not just check out altogether? Isn't there some way we can still play big-time major-conference college sports without selling our soul or preemptively conceding defeat?
I don't have the answer. If anyone else does, I'd love to hear it.