With rumors circulating around Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari and his possible departure from the college coaching ranks, Wildcats fans have reason to be on edge. Kentucky basketball wouldn't be the same without Calipari, as his player development and trust-building skills are the key to the program's future success.
The rumors began with a tweet from former Kentucky basketball standout Rex Chapman, stating Calipari's future lay with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Calipari has distanced himself from those rumors, telling ESPN's Jeannine Edwards, "I got the best job. I've got a good group of kids. Love what I'm doing. Speculation? That's there every year I coach."
Before Calipari came along, Kentucky hadn't been to a Final Four since 1998, when they won the championship under Tubby Smith. Smith was unable to repeat his initial success in the NCAA tournament, and Billy Gillispie couldn't make it past the first round in his two seasons before Calipari's arrival.
Calipari has made the Final Four three times in his five seasons in Kentucky and in 2012 delivered the NCAA championship to a program craving another title. While Smith was excellent at delivering great conference results, Calipari has established a track record as a great tournament coach.
Those deep tournament runs keep Kentucky in the national spotlight and in the minds of high school hoops prospects with NBA aspirations looking to polish their skill set.
Calipari's greatest strengths are recruiting and player development. NBA coaches need to be strategists. That's not Cal's wheelhouse.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) April 8, 2014
Draftexpress.com has Randle, James Young and Willie Cauley-Stein as top-30 prospects heading into this summer's draft. With those players likely to leave, Kentucky can't count on veteran players to lead them and establish continuity.
Coach Calipari is that continuity, the man capable of bridging the gap from Anthony Davis to Julius Randle to Trey Lyles—Randle's heir apparent and, according to ESPN.com, the second-best power forward prospect in the 2014 recruiting class.
Karl Towns, another 5-star recruit of Calipari's, cited Calipari's honest approach to recruiting as what makes the program so attractive (via Ricky O'Donnell of sbnation.com):
I think that just the way he is...He never lies to you and he keeps it straight with you. Cal really does a great job of always being honest. That's the way the program is, it just runs on honesty.
Lyles also told O'Donnell, "He's taken guys like us and helped develop us and take us to the next level, to the NBA. That's what everybody wants to do."
How far will the Kentucky Wildcats go in the NCAA tournament next season if Calipari returns?
The questions and answers don't revolve around Kentucky's illustrious history or the glory of playing in famed Rupp Arena. For all intents and purposes, Calipari is the Kentucky program, such is the force of his personality.
If Calipari were to leave and break the trust he works so hard to gain with young players, the program would find itself in disarray. The coach tasked with taking over for Calipari next would have to not only assimilate Towns and Lyles into a roster set to return young stars like Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and (possibly) the Harrison twins. He would also have to answer questions about trust in an era when coaches are expected to stick around longer than the players.
Thanks to Calipari, Kentucky won't be short on talent for the next couple of years. However, when it comes to molding that talent into conference and tournament success, the coach is always the key.