During last year’s NCAA basketball tournament, fans around the country were treated to something almost as sweet as seeing their own teams win the national championship: watching Duke lose. In its opening game. To Lehigh. My schadenfreude was slightly different from everyone else’s, but it was schadenfreude, and this was new. I’d never been one of those Duke haters. In fact, I’d been a Duke fan for more than two decades, since my first years as a graduate student in Durham, when, despite my many aversions to life in the Gothic Wonderland (e.g., people calling it the Gothic Wonderland), I began to treat the school’s basketball triumphs as my own. But I can’t root for the Blue Devils anymore. When they play John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday, I’ll be rooting for Kentucky, sort of, but I’ll really be rooting against the NCAA. Kentucky is the ugly truth the NCAA wants to hide, and Duke is the hysterical lie they hide it with.
As a Ph.D. student, I did the usual TA stints in giant lecture classes. I graded athletes’ essays, and I knew the unfortunate work I was reading signaled admissions standards bent for the sake of ACC and NCAA championships. My broader suspicions, though, were neutralized by the heroic profile of Coach K. I’d both played and coached high-school basketball, and, for me, the living myth of Mike Krzyzewski was irresistible. A bonus, at a relatively small school like Duke, was the regular chance to run in pickup games with Coach K’s players, who were usually gracious and even generous with the ball, though you could often feel a certain condescension when they passed it to you.
It wasn’t just ex-jocks like me, apprenticing with former students of Allan Bloom in the stodgy political science department. Coach K’s aura filled the most radical graduate lounges. Young Lacanians and Derrideans, honing their hermeneutic chops under Fredric Jameson and Stanley Fish, could be found cheering alongside preppy, heteronormative undergrads at local bars. Coach K made this possible. College basketball was notoriously corrupt, and college sports in general were a problem on several levels, and sharing Final Four ecstasies with those undergrads could make you feel a little funny, if you thought too much about it. But, on Coach K’s authority, we let ourselves join in on the self-celebration. He was a different sort of college coach. The exception. The ideal.
But in so desperately seizing onto Coach K as this ideal, we were conceding the indictment against his profession. Our admiration was actually an untenable form of relief. Finally, we thought, here’s someone whose comportment and reputation do not obviously mock us for losing ourselves in his sport, for treating it as a purer form of competition: “The College Game.” He’s an exception. There has to be someone, the ideal coach who embodies the true spirit of amateur sports, who allows us to go on imbibing their incredible drama. The theoretical possibility of this ideal coach redeems our exultation and dejection on those autumn Saturdays, and during “Championship Week” and “March Madness.” It eases the yearly nausea of “Bowl Season.”
But what is this ideal coach an exception to? Famous scofflaws, presumably, like Jim Tressel and Barry Switzer, and whoever was most recently fired at the University of Miami, and the other less notorious but still kind of sketchy heads of major “programs” in college football and basketball. The ideal is an exception to the familiar run of characters who make up the coaching ranks of big-time college sports, people whose jobs depend on a wide array of legal scams and sanctioned loopholes: the slippery promises of recruiting, degraded standards in admissions and academics, eligibility schemes that shunt players into gut classes but leave them far from any degree when their scholarships run out. And, for many coaches, there are the seven-figure contracts and rich sponsorship deals they take for themselves as they bask in the legal and sentimental light of amateurism, and also in the cultural authority of the universities whose standards they corrupt.
Of course, the ideal coach can’t really be an exception, not if he wants to—as they say—compete. That’s his job description, too. Somehow, people considered Joe Paterno, living by his own laws inside the private reality of his luxurious football complex, an exception. But he merely lacked certain outward traits we’ve come to expect in the men who lead our major “programs”—that familiar combination of big-boss imperiousness and con-man dodginess. We needed Joe Pa to be someone who doesn’t exist, and he did sort of look like that person, and that was good enough for us.
So maybe we should idealize the typical coaching persona instead, hold it up as the awful truth it represents, challenge ourselves to face this truth, and license ourselves to enjoy “The College Game” only when we’ve proven brave enough to dwell in its hideousness. It might be unpleasant at first, but it would save us a lot of cognitive dissonance in the long run.
Perhaps, then, our new coaching ideal should be Calipari, a man hired to lead one of college basketball’s greatest programs despite an almost comically sordid coaching history. It turns out that vacated championships and forfeited seasons are not too shameful a legacy for the University of Kentucky, storied home of Adolph Rupp. (But then, why would they be?) We’d find it edifying to treat Calipari as our model, to fetishize his example. He is, after all, exemplary. Even during those years when he’s observing the rules as written, his daily job involves ethical shortcuts and competitive stratagems that are more or less exactly as sketchy as the vibe he gives off during chats with Tony and Mike on Pardon the Interruption: the nervous good humor of someone who’s just been released on a technicality. Imbibe that spirit, if you can.