The big men on campus

Staff WriterApril 9, 2009 

If I hadn't feared being called "Pops" and it hadn't been past my bedtime, I'd have been right out there with the kids on Franklin Street Monday night, being a Carolina grad and all. But there are others things stirring in the world of big-time college basketball that are, at the very best, unsettling. And perhaps one reason that's so is because there are no simple solutions.

First, look at the case of now-former Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, a whiz who's accepted a proposal of marriage from the University of Kentucky, which popped the question on both knees and offered a dowry of $30-plus million over several years, plus a variety of perks.

University President Lee T. Todd Jr. told The New York Times he looked fondly at the championship banners hanging in the basketball palace and he added, "Every now and then I look up there and I kind of wish we can add another one before I leave this position."

Let's hope he's as passionate about adding a Nobel Prize or two before he leaves, too.

I know, I know. The field is competitive, successful athletics boosts applications, the money is mostly generated from private sources, coaches are the key and the market for them is competitive.

But the whole situation has gone crazy, and the fear is what the long-term implications are going to be. Because every college president who's ever signed a giant contract has offered the usual response to questions about it, something like, "Well, I do worry about it, but I think the ceiling will be reached one day." (What's that song, "How High the Moon?")

Now it used to be that one justification for big salaries and ever-expanding facilities and what'all went something like: "Well, sure, it's expensive. But we are giving an opportunity for an education to kids, many of whom might not have the chance otherwise. So we're very noble."

Some folks still sing the song, but it's faded from the Hit Parade. The top recruits from the high schools are looking for big-profile institutions that can provide them a spot on the marquee that will get them attention from the professional teams. Some, and the latest championship edition of the UNC-Chapel Hill team is an example, stick with a program despite flirtations from the pros in order to win a championship and a degree. But mostly, it seems, the college tour is about a tradeoff: a school gets a star player for a year or two, the player gets his value to the pros raised.

A case in point: John Wall of Raleigh's Word of God Christian Academy, perhaps the most highly recruited basketball player in the country. All those around Wall forecast that he will be a "one and done" college player, that he will attend a college for one year, and then depart for the professional ranks and millions of dollars that will guarantee lifetime security for him and his family.

Even knowing that the youngster is likely to do that, schools such as N.C. State University and Duke University are panting to sign him up.

Make no mistake: John Wall can't be blamed for wanting to get those millions as soon as he can. He has a marketable talent that could vanish in a flash with one injury. He is just working within the system, part of which is a rule of the National Basketball Association, the professional league, that players must be 19 to be eligible, which eliminates for most the chance to go pro right out of high school.

One who has seen the evolution of major college athletics into a farm team system for pro sports is Sonny Vaccaro, who made his name as a representative of shoe and apparel companies orchestrating lucrative side deals for colleges and coaches. With perspective (expressed in a recent presentation in Chapel Hill), Vaccaro's now a reformer who believes, among other things, that players like Wall should be able to go pro right out of high school, that colleges should eliminate varsity freshman eligibility for athletes (thus encouraging recruits to stay for a while), that scholarships should be multi-year and not year-to-year, that schools should control their schedules, not turn them over, essentially, to television networks.

His ideas make pretty good sense. But they go against a tide that has washed a lot of money into a lot of places.

Still, the conclusions of Times columnist William C. Rhoden, who did the piece on Calipari, are hard to escape. In the end, Rhoden quotes Kentucky President Todd as saying, "What would universities be if you didn't have some of those athletic opportunities?"

After which Rhoden concluded: "If the economy continues a downward spiral and athletic salaries soar, we may soon see."

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 829-4513 or at

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