John Calipari is extremely tactical in what he says and how he believes he will be portrayed by the people who make him successful: The players.
Typically, Calipari can defend his comments and his approach with "look at the results and then talk to me." He wins, which makes the fans happy. He gets players to the pros, which gets him more players to produce the wins.
Last year's lack of success—from No. 3 in the preseason to a first-round exit in the NIT—has cracked the door for those who like to criticize him and put Calipari (ever so slightly) on the defensive.
The most recent criticism came from former Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard, who doesn't love Calipari's one-and-done approach (via KSTV in Kentucky):
Those players, you want to follow them. You want to see what they do during the summer. You want to see them develop. You want to see them get stronger and work on their jumpshot. All those things that traditionally you have been able to follow, you've been able to talk about, you've been able to get excited, you've been able to build upon—has now changed. And I don't like it. I don't think the Kentucky fan, overall, likes it.
... The last thing that I want to do is take away from the run that Coach Calipari has put together over the last several years. It's been phenomenal. I personally think there's maybe a little too much emphasis on celebrating first-round draft picks. I'd rather be celebrating national championships.
I would venture to say that Sheppard's interpretation of how UK fans feel about winning is off. They do like winning—2012 was a pretty good year for them—and if celebrating those first-round draft picks begets more winning, then celebrate.
It works too. Don't you think Calipari getting Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to the pros had something to do with six McDonald's All-Americans choosing to attend Kentucky next year?
If Sheppard is looking for Calipari to change or apologize for how he wins, he's not going to do that. Calipari shapes his rhetoric so that he can get the top-level talent to want to play for him. Take a look at part of the excerpt released last week from his new book Players First: Success from the Inside Out.
I don't do what I do for the commonwealth of Kentucky, for the university, for the legacy of the program, or for the greater glory of Big Blue Nation. There was a time I coached partly for myself—for status, respect, money, wins. But I don't do that anymore, either. Good for those coaches who get to seven hundred, eight hundred, or even a thousand wins, but I'm not staying in it that long. I can promise you my record will not be on my tombstone.
I coach for the names on the back of the jersey—not the front. My players.
Did that over-the-top-delivery make you a little sick to your stomach? It should. But it works. He gets recruits to buy this. And he responds to his critics by also making it clear whenever given the opportunity that he thinks the one-and-rule bites. He's done so on his website and he had this to say in May to Kentucky Sports Radio:
Something's got to change with this one-and-done rule. I seem to be the only coach saying anything. You know why? No one wants to see these kids two years here. They don't want to see them two years, so now we're all good with one year.
Oh no. He's the victim. Here's more:
I'm going to go and let these kids do their thing, but if there's a down high school year and we had the best class of that high school season—No. 1 class Kentucky—but it's a bad high school year, it's going to be a struggle like it was last year. It is what it is the way the rules are.
So Calipari's success is directly tied to the strength of each high school class. Last year was the result of a weak crop of college freshmen—not the fact that he lacked a great point guard and the talent he had just didn't mesh right.
Years like 2012-13 give what Sheppard prefers some merit. Sheppard went on to say that he feels a closer connection to Rick Pitino, his coach for a majority of his career. And Pitino just so happens to run a program where most guys stick around for a few years. Pitino finds players with ability who fit his system instead of simply going after the players with the best ability.
Pitino's style works. No one should question that. But so does Calipari's. It's hard to argue with his consistency the previous five seasons—a 173-20 record, three Final Fours and a national title.
He had a down year. That happens at most programs. He deserves a mulligan. He also should not throw an entire high school class under the bus for one bad season.
Stick to what got you there, Calipari. Go ahead and give us this (from the book):
If you come after one of my players, I come after you twice as hard. If you kill one of mine, I burn your village. It’s the Italian in me. I’m not proud of that, but it’s who I am.
We know who you are, Calipari. You're a man who likes to win.
I don't question that he loves his players and wants what's best for them. I also don't question how he expresses it, because it works.
It might smell to you, but players buy it. He preaches it at every opportunity—even when a guy is transferring—and it gets him the players to win the games.
Sheppard is wrong. Kentucky fans will and have embraced Calipari's methods and what he says to get what he wants. Why? Because winning and winning big is fun. And they're about what's on the front of the jersey.
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