Kentucky supports Calipari

Published 2:20 am Friday, August 21, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Hours before the NCAA stripped Memphis of its 2008 Final Four appearance, former coach John Calipari stepped to a microphone at the Kentucky State Fair and received a standing ovation.

Hired by Kentucky to revive college basketball’s all-time winningest program, both fans and administrators are hoping what happened in Memphis will stay in Memphis.

The NCAA ruled the Tigers used an ineligible player during their record-setting run in the 2007-08 season, when Memphis went 38-2 and lost to Kansas in the national championship game. The NCAA didn’t identify the player, but it is believed to be point guard Derrick Rose, who left Memphis after his freshman season and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2008 NBA Draft.

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The player was accused of having another person take his SAT exam so he would be eligible as a freshman. Memphis says it will appeal.

Calipari, who signed an eight-year $31.65-million deal to replace Billy Gillispie at Kentucky this spring, expressed dismay over the NCAA’s decision.

‘‘I’m very disappointed and disheartened by the NCAA’s findings,’’ Calipari said in a statement. ‘‘I fully support the University of Memphis’ appeal and until that process is carried through to its completion, I will have no further comments on the matter. I am anxious to coach the team at the University of Kentucky beginning this fall.’’

The penalty marked the second time a Calipari-led squad has been forced to vacate a Final Four berth. The NCAA took away Massachusetts’ Final Four appearance in 1996 after star center Marcus Camby accepted gifts from a sports agent.

Calipari was not implicated in either matter, though if Memphis loses its appeal it could hit him in the wallet. Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said if the appeal fails, the school will ask Calipari to repay $300,000 in bonus money from the ’07-08 season.

The NCAA’s report did not mention Calipari, good enough for members of one of the nation’s most ardent fan bases.

‘‘I’m not worried about it because they have never said Coach Cal did anything wrong at all,’’ said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who chatted with Calipari for several minutes early Thursday. ‘‘I think he’s a very upstanding guy. I think that’s his reputation and I think that reputation will be with him here. I really don’t foresee any problems.’’

University president Lee Todd and athletic director Mitch Barnhart — who put their public support behind Calipari after the Memphis allegations came to light only weeks after his hiring — declined comment on Thursday.

University spokesman Jimmy Stanton called the violations ‘‘a University of Memphis issue, not a UK issue.’’

Despite the problems at Memphis and Massachusetts, Barnhart told The Associated Press in a recent interview he’s confident the tools are in place to successfully police and protect Calipari and the program.

‘‘There’s a lot of things that we do because we have a pretty long history of understanding the different ways people try to attach themselves to Kentucky basketball,’’ Barnhart said. ‘‘The people that have been around here a while understand what some of the pitfalls can be. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be perfect.’’

Barnhart stressed the school’s compliance office and Calipari’s mission to run an open and clean program will help keep the Wildcats out of NCAA trouble.

‘‘There’s one thing John says, ’I want my banners to count for something and I want to put the rings on the fingers and let them stay there,’’’ Barnhart said. ‘‘That’s important to him and so he is embracing any help that we give him to make sure we’re able to, at the end of the day, not have to look over our shoulders and worry.’’

Response on Calipari’s Facebook fan page was overwhelmingly supportive, with most posters eager to talk about the Kentucky’s 2009-10 schedule released Thursday.

Memphis? That was yesterday.