John Calipari is trying to fix its image, tarnished by a 0.0 graduation rate.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 15, 2002
Case study for what is wrong with college basketball. Tigers have had four coaches since 1996, including Tic Price, who resigned in '99 after admitting to affair with student. Poor academic performance predates latest NCAA tracking: From 1990-'97, 40 players entered program but only two earned degrees. . . .
In its college basketball preview issue, Sports Illustrated handed out a report card to each school ranked in its Top 20, with a comment and letter grade based on how the program had conducted itself the past 10 years. The evaluation of Memphis was brutal.
The Tigers received the only "F."
. . . New coach John Calipari talks about improving that, but among his first moves was hiring Milt Wagner (father of prized recruit Dajuan Wagner), who has no college degree, and signing Dajuan's pal Arthur Barclay, who was academically ineligible last season. . .
The graduation statistics from the latest NCAA study, which for Memphis occurred under the watch of former coach Larry Finch (1986-97), are as bleak as possible. Of players who entered the program in the four seasons up to and including 1994-95, none held a Memphis degree within six years.
A 0.0 percent graduation rate. So much for student-athletes.
By comparison, for Division I schools in the same period, the average for athletes is 58 percent, the average for the student body is 56 percent, and the average for men's basketball players is 41 percent.
"The first thing I said publicly when I was hired here a year-and-a-half ago was, "Our graduation rate is abysmal,' " said Calipari, who came to Memphis before last season. "Zero percent -- how can this be? We've got to do better. We will do better."
They can't do worse.
The revelation wasn't news in Memphis. Weeks earlier, on Oct. 28, the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a story about it.
"There's no excuses to make, but I don't think we are sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring it. We are all aware of it, and we are trying to move in the same direction," R.C. Johnson, the Memphis athletic director for six years, told the Commercial Appeal.
Calipari, 42, made his name at Massachusetts from 1988-96, taking a program with 10 consecutive losing seasons and transforming it into a powerhouse. The Minutemen won 20 games in each of his last six seasons, including a No. 1 ranking and 35-2 record his final season, 1995-96.
After a stint in the NBA, Calipari returned to the college ranks last season. The Tigers went 21-15, Memphis' first 20-win season in five years. Then they signed Dajuan Wagner.
Wagner, a 6-foot-3 guard, was as heavily courted as it gets. At Camden (N.J.) High he had 100 points in a game, and he is New Jersey's all-time leading scorer with 3,462 points.
Calipari signed Wagner's high school teammate and best friend, Barclay, an academic non-qualifier, last season. He also added a staff assistant: Milt Wagner, Dajuan's father, he without the college degree. Calipari did it all to help secure a player who is likely to spend one year in school before becoming an NBA lottery pick.
Calipari and Memphis have defended the legitimacy of the moves.
"Coach Wagner has won a national championship (as a player at Louisville) and NBA championship (with the Lakers), so he has strong credentials, and he is taking classes at Memphis and working toward his degree," sports information director Ron Mears said. "Barclay has gained his eligibility and is on track to graduate on time and earn back the lost year of eligibility, so he's doing well."
Calipari has asked to be judged by what he did at UMass and so far at Memphis, not by what happened in the past at Memphis.
"When I got to UMass, the graduation rate was 15 percent, and there was not one African-American (player who had graduated the previous four years)," Calipari said. "When I left, it was (almost) 80 percent, with many African Americans.
"My graduation rate is not zero percent. Our school is zero, and we've got to work on it."
Two former Memphis players, Kelvin Allen (1989-93) and Cheyenne Gibson (1987-90), recently returned and got degrees, though not in time to count toward NCAA statistics. They both teach and coach at Sheffield High in Memphis.
Memphis, 13-4 this season, 3-0 in C-USA, is becoming an on-court success and is expected to reach the NCAA Tournament (Wagner averages 21.3 points a game). Calipari vows to improve graduation rates as well.
Memphis is increasing its athletic-academic support staff. Mears said there are two people employed in that area, but a third will be hired as soon as this month to oversee the department.
"We need to wait a few years before we can judge how I've done," Calipari said. "I would say within four to five years, our graduation rate will be 70 to 75 percent."