Caught Between Calipari, My Rock and a Hard Place

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Caught Between Calipari, My Rock and a Hard Place
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The whole John Calipari "will he/won't he go" to the University of Kentucky thing put me in a very bad position. I found myself stuck in the middle of John Calipari, a rock and a very hard place.

Now, normally I would not be complaining about being stuck anywhere with Mr. Calipari because I have definitely ranked him in my Top 10 Hottie Coaches (who doesn't love a cocky, powerful, good looking Italian man?)  But this situation really called to light everything I hate about sports from the skyrocketing trend of choosing contracts over team loyalty to the hours and  hours of insane speculations.

First, I will say congrats to Calipari and to Kentucky since he just accepted their offer that will make him the highest paid NCAA basketball coach. Second, a big "sorry, that sucks" to Memphis.

John Calipari

Here's the thing. I love John Calipari. I have loved this guy, eversince I first discovered my love for college basketball back in like 1993 or 1994. I loved watching him on the sidelines of the UMass games and thought he was the greatest thing since Marcus Camby. I (reluctantly) admit now that Calipari is actually greater than Camby, although it still pains me greatly to say such things.

True, I wasn't jumping up and down and following Calipari when he went to the NBA, but that's just because I tend to be anti-Nets. Nor do I know all of his stats, figures, histories and stories.

I'll even come right out and admit that I haven't been following him much lately. In fact, the last few years I've only been a bandwagon NCAA basketball lover—meaning I hop on during March Madness, get excited about the tourney and my brackets then jump right back off to go into hibernation for 11 months.

Cut me some slack though!

You try moving to Florida with the girliest girls in America and see if sports penetrate your very pink sparkly, bubble world!

But to this day, when someone asks "who are your favorite coaches?" I automatically say Roy Williams, John Calipari and Phil Jackson. Maybe I've been brainwashed. But when I first started watching basketball, I liked the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics (because my dad made me), the Kansas Jayhawks and the UMass Minutemen. From that point on, I adopted their favorite players, their rivalries and feuds, and most of all, their beloved coaches. At least, I picked teams with good ones.

This year, I finally took an avid interest in college basketball, again and when I found out Calipari was the coach for the Memphis Tigers, I adopted them as my team just because he was the coach.

I looked into the team and really, who doesn't love that kind of story? He took another small school in a mid-major conference and turned into something fantastic. I'm pretty much addicted to that little school in Tennessee that has made a really big name for itself.

And now he's going to Kentucky, a school that may have a long and wonderful basketball program but it's one that I've sworn to not like for the last oh, 15 years or so.

My Rock

Today's sports world, is dominated by money, trading and small-print filled legal contracts, the term "team loyalty" has become practically obsolete. I'm hardly the first person to point out that fascinating fact. Everyone says it, everyone complains about it and I guess it's finally my turn to rant.

I became an NBA fan in the early 90s, when it was still part of the Jordan Era. This was back when it meant something to be a Bull, or a Knick, a Sun, a Laker or a Celtic. Yes, players were still traded, I understand that but the thought of Patrick Ewing or Charles Barkley ever joining the Bulls was downright laughable.

And then, all of a sudden, superstars leaving their home teams was the norm. Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley even wound up as teammates on the freaking Houston Rockets!

Take even coach Phil Jackson. Yes, he's been on the Lakers for what seems like forever. But he was the coach of the Bulls. The same Bulls who hated the Lakers. It still bugs me to this day, but hey, I'm one of those people who still isn't over the Brad-Jen split either. The problem is that it forces me to compromise my hatred of the Lakers, for my love of Jackson, but hey, you know what, I just stopped watching the NBA.

Simple as that.

Thankfully, before Michael Jordan decided to play for someone other than the Bulls. I turned all my basketball lovin' to the NCAA. It has become my rock of team loyalty.

These are some stats that I actually do think are relevant and important for a change:

  • Coach K has been with Duke since 1980. True, it's Duke, one of the most storied programs in the country—where else would you want to go?
  • Dean Smith coached UNC from 1961-1997—when he retired. Since then, there have been three different coaches in 10 years!
  • Jim Boeheim 33 years, Syracuse
  • Jim Calhoun 23 years, UConn (and before that, 14 years at Northeastern)
  • Tom Izzo 1995- present, Michigan State University

Even Roy Williams, who left his long 15 years at Kansas to the dismay of Jayhawk fans, opted for major loyalty. He is a former Tar Heel. He not only played ball for Dean Smith, but he also went on to be his assistant coach. Taking a job at UNC is like a homecoming for him. And he still respects and reps for his beloved Jayhawks.

Billy Donovan refused the offer by Kentucky because he wanted to stay with his boys in Florida. He's been leading Gator Nation since 1996. Well, okay, minus that whole 5 day stint in the NBA after his back-to-back NCAA championships were he suddenly said "hehe just kidding" and came back to NCAA ball.

I like those stats because they protect my image and perception that college basketball is still fairly protected—although not completely sheltered—from all this contract/money/team jumping/management issues. There is still team loyalty. Yeah, I know, in reality, it's just as bad in the NCAA, but they cover it up so good. Fans truly appreciate this!

The problem with this whole Calipari to Kentucky thing is that it brings all of this ickiness into sharp and clear focus.

Personally, my problem with all of this is that in college, they are not just building a team and a marketable franchise; they are building programs and dreams. Yes, I know I'm an idealist and there is more to it, but ultimately, players  choose these schools because of the programs and the coaches. They look for a good fit and a coach that is going to help them up their game.

And it's not just the players that pick a school for the sports programs. Incoming students that don't even play are often diehard fans that want to be a part of the story. So what happens when the beloved coach leaves the program, for another school?

"...subjectively, I am reeling. I'm 17 and Calipari was a major factor in my decision of where to attend college. I got accepted into Memphis, and now, I feel relatively betrayed.  I looked up to Calipari. This city rallied around him and his players. He unified this city like no one else could. Seriously. If he wanted to, he could've run for mayor...and won. This program will be taking a substantial step back, especially now that Cal is taking existing players with him. It doesn't seem fair." ~John Martin, Bleacher Report

My hard place:

I'm not an idiot, I know that most of these coaching "changes" are actually the sports world version of a promotion.

In any career path, people strive to be the best. To advance and move up the ranks, even if that means taking a higher paid position in another company.

Maybe, we have a hard time with coaches leaving because of our false perceptions. In the NBA, the perception of promotion is for the coach to win championships, having winning records and ultimately move up to become the GM or owner of our favorite team.  In college, the perception of a promotion is becoming an NBA head coach.

To be honest, I don't really know what excelling as an NBA coach means. I'd say keeping your job for more than a season and not having your team relocated to a random city.

As for at the college level, sure, some college coaches do have dreams of the bigger, higher paying NBA, but most of them don't. They don't want to be dealing with the bullshit of the league.

They want to be the teachers. They want to be the ones developing the greatness. In fact, many NCAA coaches get called to the big league but return quickly to the comfort of the college level.

So if reaching the NBA is not the promotion, then what is? What does being the best mean? Multiple winning seasons? Coaching the best player in the nation? Winning the championship? Or maybe the promotion is finally getting the recognition of the Big Men on Campus, when they call to offer a BMOC position in a big name school with a long, storied history in a big name power conference.

And maybe the promotion only comes after taking a small, unknown school and making them great, because that's how your name gets heard by the powers that be. Take Billy Donovan. He was a coach for little known Marshall University. His success there opened the door to the Florida Gators.

So for Calipari, sure there is the lure of a whole lotta money and the power to basically get anything he wants, but it's more than that. It's Kentucky. Calipari took Memphis and made them National Championship contenders. He has recruits all over the country wanting to join his program. He was named Sports Illustrated Coach of the Year.

But Memphis ain't Kentucky. Neither was UMass.

It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for any coach, especially a coach who is talented and deserving as Calipari—a coach who has been "a big fish in a small pond" for his career.

And I get all of that,  I do.

My Rock, Hard Place and John Calipari

On one hand there is team loyalty and on the other is career advancement. Rock. Hard Place. John Calipari.

Running with the idea that coaches are teachers, if my favorite teacher from 6th grade Mrs. Lobel was offered three times her salary to teach at a private school that would give her extra benefits, time to see her kids and a program that would really inspire her to grow and be a better student—even though she would not longer be available to the following classes of my small town—wouldn't I want that for her?

I'm happy for John. He deserves to play with the big boys now, he's earned it. Even if he didn't take the spot, he had finally won  the respect of the other BMOC. On the other hand, I think I would have respected him more if he stayed at Memphis.

But how can I fault a guy for trying to be the best and reach a pinnacle goal for his profession, just because I have a soft spot for the Memphis Tigers and a deep rooted animosity towards the Kentucky Wildcats?

I suppose if I can still watch Phil Jackson coach the Lakers from time to time (unless they play the Celtics) then I can support Calipari wherever he may go.

But, what Kentucky fan didn't feel at least a little pang when Rick Pitino came back from his stint in the NBA and headed up Louisville instead of returning to head up the University of Kentucky?

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Story originally published on Stiletto Sports.

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