John Calipari boasts a coaching track record that few can match in college basketball these days.
Calipari has built astoundingly successful programs off the beaten path at UMass and Memphis by attracting elite athletes to less-than-elite programs.
His Memphis teams are perennial powerhouses that have run roughshod through Conference USA, and are a threat to crash the Final Four on a yearly basis.
And his success with the Tigers is no fluke.
Behind his lanky, shot-blocking star center Marcus Camby, Calipari took an unheralded Massachusetts program to the Final Four in 1996, and built a consistent winner there as well.
Calipari has been immensely successful at the collegiate level, and could probably continue to dominate Conference USA opponents, compile 30-win seasons, and garner No. 1 and 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament for another decade or two. He could continue as the king of Memphis and retire in comfort.
But for a competitor like Calipari, and with the ego to match, that isn't enough.
When people talk about the best coaches in college basketball, they often mention Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Coach K, and others before they get to Calipari. And they are mentioned ahead of him, and always will be, because they coach in the limelight.
For John Calipari to receive the acclaim and respect he seeks, he has to take the Kentucky job and win big.
As Calipari allegedly told his players in a meeting Monday morning, Kentucky is college basketball's answer to Notre Dame football. There is no grander stage in terms of historical significance, prestige, or reputation in the game. There is also no greater place to make a name for yourself.
The stakes are high for whoever dares to take the challenge of being the head coach at Kentucky. They ran off ill-fitting Billy Gillespie after only two seasons, and chased Tubby Smith as well, a guy who won a national title in Lexington.
But if coach Cal can even come close to the level of success he has had elsewhere at Kentucky, he will achieve deity-like status in Lexington.
And there is no reason to believe he can't.
Calipari is an excellent recruiter (a little slick and dirty, his critics would quip as well) and if he was able to bring the likes of Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans to non-traditional schools like UMass and Memphis, what kind of scary talent will he be able to cultivate with the prestige, resources, and tradition of Kentucky behind him?
Calipari would have a great deal of talent to work with from the get-go, provided he can sweet talk stars Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks to stick around for another season.
That kind of talent melded with Calipari's more up-tempo, high-pressure style could help the Wildcats turn things around in a hurry, helping Calipari rapidly enhance his legacy on one of college basketball's premier stages. The SEC isn't exactly stacked right now.
Ultimately, Calipari has done about as much as he can do in Memphis. He can win, make Final Four's, and even hoist championship trophies for the Tigers, and never receive the recognition he deserves. And for a competitor like that, it has to eat at him a little.
Cal wants to take his rightful place with the other elite coaches in college basketball, and skeptics will always question his ability to win on the highest level, so long as he continues to coach outside of the major conferences.
A true competitor can't be happy with the not knowing, the questions regarding how Calipari would hold up under the pressure-cooker of competition in the SEC, ACC, or Big East.
And that is why he is already gone.
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