Calipari Gets Lucky in Kentucky: U.K.'s the Easy Way Out

Joe M.Correspondent IIApril 6, 2009

Former Memphis coach John Calipari was formally introduced as the University of Kentucky's men's basketball coach, appropriately enough, on April Fool's Day.

You see, the whole ordeal was one big joke, if you ask me. The only person happier than Calipari, who seems to have an uncanny lovefest with UK even though they haven't won anything in 12 years, is UK A.D. Mitch Barnhardt.

He was able to save his job and, in the process, will likely end up looking like a genius.

Yet in reality, all he did was get lucky. A coach happened to want to come to UK on the basis of past success, despite the Wildcats being a so-called "declining" program.

Basically, Kentucky's "worst" season in 17 years allowed for an easier transition, as former coach Billy Gillispie could be unceremoniously jettisoned. The Wildcats made off like bandits.


I find it insulting that sports media pundits are actually using the word "rebuilding" when referring to Kentucky.

I guess they're "rebuilding," as long as teams that are "rebuilding" are contenders until the end of the season (i.e., they're bubble teams), as long as "rebuilding" allows you to have SEC Player of the Year (Jodie Meeks, who averaged 23.7 points per game this past season), and as long as "rebuilding" still gets you 22 wins.

If all that's true then, sure, they were "rebuilding."


Current Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a long-time (presumed) rival of Calipari, admitted amidst the rumors of Calipari's hiring at UK that Coach Cal would do a "great job".

Wow, how prophetic. Considering that all the man does is win, I'd say that wasn't too bold of a prediction.

Give me a break, it's one any armchair analyst could have made.


ESPN's Digger Phelps was the first person I know of to claim that "Kentucky would be a Sweet Sixteen team next year" shortly after Gillispie was fired. And this was before the hiring of Calipari or the rumors of any replacement surfaced.

His reasoning was that Kentucky was actually a good team that had good players, but that they just weren't coached right.

Little did he (or we) know, but Calipari fills the void and suits this team to a "T".  

There are now rumors that Meeks and fellow standout Patrick Patterson will return to the team next year instead of going pro, as originally assumed for both. This would have to do with playing for Calipari, as getting run in his system would only help their careers and draft outlook.

So you know what? I can take Phelps' prediction one step further. Next year, the Wildcats will not only win the SEC, they'll be a Final Four team.

So how long is it going to take Kentucky to "rebuild"?

One year, with or without Patterson and Meeks.

This is why the aforementioned label was so insulting from the beginning. As any UK fan (and any SEC rival's fan, like me) would tell you, all they needed was a better coach, and boy, did they ever get it!


The thing I always admired about Calipari was his high-profile status for normally low-profile teams in mediocre conferences. His brilliance was able to turn an also-ran UMass team into a perennial power in the weak Atlantic-10 in the early 1990's. He also took a Memphis team buried in the afterthought that is Conference USA and brought in the nation's best recruits, turning them into an NCAA power.

We were all cheated out of seeing what his latest team could have done now that Xavier Henry, the nation's #1 prospect, apparently is now considering Kansas after de-committing from Memphis due to Calipari's departure.

And speaking of being cheated, we were all entitled to seeing Kentucky struggle (by their standards, at least) these past two years only to see them get bailed out by a starry-eyed man and his greedy new employers.

Right now, there's no word on all-world PG Jon Wall or F DeMarcus Cousins, two in-limbo Memphis recruits.


By going to Kentucky, Calipari chose to take the easy way out. Worse yet, he's reduced himself to title "hired gun" rather than "visionary" or true "savior" of a program that needed him.

Most any coach could have had success at UK (as long as they weren't overmatched, as Billy Gillispie was in what I believe was an isolated and unique circumstance in an outlier of a tenure).

True, Gillispie didn't have "success" by the insane Kentucky standards, but his 40-27 record still counts for something, and consider he did win 12 conference games last year and was off to a 5-0 start this year and 16-5 overall before the wheels fell off.

Besides, when Pitino took over, the school was coming off a worse season than Gillispie's. The year before Rick arrived, Eddie Sutton's 1988 Wildcats went 13-19 (8-10) and finished 6th in the SEC.

Of course, they'd made the tournament three years running before that and had won two or more games in the Dance two times in that span. Geez, how bad off has this team ever been?

Each man in Kentucky's long coaching lineage, which includes Rupp, Hall, Sutton, Pitino, and Smith, has his accolades. Only Sutton was unable to win at least one championship while at U.K., but as a former AP Coach of the Year and only the fifth coach with over 800 career victories, he's not exactly a slouch, either.


Calipari's hiring proves to me that, no matter what, UK will simply always have great coaching because of who they are. They can pimp their past success until the end of time.

The saddest part is, it is simply a no-win situation for Coach Cal. Even if he does win a title or two during his tenure, he'll still play third fiddle to iconic coach Adolph Rupp and the aforementioned Pitino, even if that's only because they did it before him.

ESPN's Mike and Mike reminded us not long ago that "UCLA's Ben Howland had that string of leading the Bruins to several consecutive Final Fours (three), yet no one is going to forget about Jon Wooden anytime soon."

The same can and will be said about Calipari and the University of Kentucky. I guess if he's able to win five or six NCAA National Championships in the next ten years (I'm not joking), maybe he'll have a start on getting into the Adolph Rupp discussion.

But even then, his journey will most likely be fruitless, as it all comes back to Rupp doing it first, for the longest, and in the simply best way.

In the end, Rupp built Kentucky basketball into what it is today, and the rest are just trying to maintain his standard of excellence as best they can.


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