Kentucky Basketball: Is John Calipari the Nation's Most Irreplaceable Coach?

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Kentucky Basketball: Is John Calipari the Nation's Most Irreplaceable Coach?
Eric Gay/Associated Press

A college basketball coach can be a tactical genius or a silver-tongued recruiter, but if he doesn't fit with his institution and the diehard fans who support it, he won't last long enough to make any spectacular impact.

Kentucky found the man who fits it, and the Big Blue Nation, better than anyone else possibly could when it contacted John Calipari about its vacant job back in 2009. And his impact qualifies as spectacular by any definition, save that of the most ardent admirers of, say, a John Wooden or even an Adolph Rupp.

Five years. Four Elite Eights. Three Final Fours. Two title games. And a championship in a pear tree.

(Sorry, got on a roll there.)

Many bench bosses overcoach, attempting to flex their tactical muscle to control every movement on the court. Such controlling men can tend to bristle at fans' frequent suggestions and roll their eyes at the over-the-top ardor of the truly fanatical.

In the face of arguably the game's most crazed supporter group, Calipari merely chuckles, smiles and expresses some measure of admiration.

"Everybody wants to say that Kentucky fans are vicious or obnoxious. They're not," Calipari told ESPN The Magazine's Andy Katz in 2012. "They're crazy in that they watch the tape of our games more than I do. But they're passionate and smart."

Those passionate, smart fans devour nearly everything they can read about their program, including columns by writers such as Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton and Bleacher Report's own Jason King who speculate on Calipari's eventual successor.

After all, when Katz asked Calipari how long he could keep the fire burning at Kentucky, he said, "Probably another six years, maybe seven. This is a 10-year run, then I'll pass it on to somebody else to keep this program going, because it's so important to this state."

That estimate was made well before the seven-year contract extension that Cal signed in June, but everyone connected to Big Blue Nation still understands that the clock is ticking. But how does Kentucky possibly replace a coach who fits his job better than any other in America?

 

Revolving Door?

Calipari also told Katz that those passionate, smart fans weren't terribly keen at first about their school and coach being the face of the one-and-done era:

I tried to tell them that having five players taken in the first round of the NBA draft was the best thing to happen to our program, but there were people who fought me then, saying, "This isn't about the championship."

Well, it is about championships. But the kids bring you championships, so at the end of the day, it's about the kids. The program is bigger than all of us. But you've gotta make this about the players, and that's what I do. They may not have accepted that in 2007.

In a climate where players chase the immediate gratification of an NBA contract, the burning question, "Can this school get me to the league?" can frequently be the primary concern for a young man itching to provide for his family. Calipari gets that like no coach in America, hence his new motto of "succeed and proceed."

"Well, I have the bully pulpit right now so I can talk about it, but my thing is I'm proud of what we have done for these young people," Calipari said at this April's Final Four. "We have had 17 (now 19) players drafted. Many of those just changed the whole direction of their family."

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press
Julius Randle became Calipari's 18th NBA draftee at Kentucky last month.

That track record of elite recruits becoming well-paid draft picks after only one season begets more prep stars eager to check out at the same express lane. They head to Kentucky because they know there's a coach there who will heartily encourage them to bolt his program after one season and do everything in his power to make them attractive professional prospects.

Calipari's so-what-if-it's-a-revolving-door philosophy seemed alien to UK fans at first, since they still harbor memories of "The Untouchables," the 1996 national title team that was led by three seniors and four juniors.

Before that team came along, "The Unforgettables," four seniors who weathered probation, ended their careers in a game frequently cited as the greatest ever played and had their jerseys retired almost before they returned home from the 1992 NCAA tournament.

Players stayed at Kentucky long enough for the fans to get to know them and fall in love. This new arrangement must have felt like a string of one-night stands at first, but when there's a Final Four at the end of each season's rainbow, hungry fans are fine with cab fare being left on the nightstand.

 

Who's Next?

In the above speculative essays, Hamilton and King bandy about names of potential Cal replacements, including Billy Donovan, Sean Miller, Tim Miles or Jay Wright. Problem is, coaching at Kentucky is about more than merely Wright's thousand-dollar suits or Miles' knack for social media.

Despite all of Donovan's success at Florida, football still dominates the conversation in Gainesville. Even though the two are the current reigning titans of the SEC, comparing the head job at UF to that at UK is like comparing the G-forces of a roller-coaster ride and piloting an F-15 fighter jet. As a former UK assistant, it's telling that Donovan rebuffed the university's advances in both 2007 and 2009.

Arizona is the most powerful program in the West today, but those pesky time zones don't let Miller and those other Wildcats get as much media exposure as they should. Nearly every Kentucky game against an opponent more powerful than the Buffalos or Morehead States of the world can be found on national TV. Every comment in every press conference is dissected like a pig in a ninth-grade science class.

Even Calipari has struggled with the pressure in the past two seasons. He used the over-reactionary word "hijacked" to describe his program's 2012-13 season, which ended in an undignified NIT first-round loss to Robert Morris.

A miserable defeat against a 20-loss South Carolina team this past March saw Cal get himself ejected and then skip the postgame press conference. He did make his contractually mandated radio appearance after that game, though, and there he seemed all too eager to shift blame onto the players.

"They're counting on me too much," he told the WHAS radio crew. (h/t Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports) "And again, they're immature. Things don't go their way. They're looking for excuses."

 

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Strange Relationships

It's disingenuous for a man who openly courts 17- and 18-year-old recruits to turn and throw them under the bus when they don't conduct themselves like savvy NBA veteransor is it?

Players grow up fast under Calipari, and sometimes the compressed timetable necessitates the use of some tough love, both privately and publicly. Some coaches never understand certain players whose careers span four years, but Cal has frequently found the right buttons to push in just a matter of months.

Case in point: Sacramento Kings star DeMarcus Cousins, whose entire pro career has beenfairly or unfairlydefined by player-coach friction. Cousins still leans on Calipari, even though they only spent one season working together.

“He’s still coaching me to this day, giving me advice, telling me things I need to do on the floor, off the floor,” Cousins told Fox Sports' Reid Forgrave. "That’s how he is with all his players. People have this perception where he just uses us, gets wins, kicks us out. It’s not like that. We’re a family, and we act like a family.”

“He treated all his players like his sons,” former UK point guard Brandon Knight told Forgrave. “A lot of coaches today, they don’t speak to their former players. I hear from Cal all the time.”

Calipari's entire career is a study in relationships, many of which can cause some observers to scratch their heads.

Who else in college basketball has demonstrated the ability to not only attract the elite of the elite recruits but also keep them fighting hard enough to make the national title game, even after the occasional media spanking following a bewildering loss?

Who else has shrugged off a frequently adversarial dynamic with the NCAA and kept climbing the ladder of success until he arrives at the "Mount Olympus" of basketball?

Who else can satiate the limitless desire of a fanbase accustomed to Final Fours and more, even when he has to rally in March to get the January critics back onside?

Whether you consider Calipari's program everything that's wrong with college basketball or simply a product of Cal playing the hand heand everyone else, for that matterhas been dealt, it's still hard to come up with any other coaches who manage to keep so many balls in the air for such a ravenous audience.

Articles speculating on who could fill Calipari's shoes are mostly a lot longer than they need to be, because Kentucky fans are currently witnessing a comet flying across their skies. And like Halley's, it could be another 76 years before the perfect blend of salesman, psychiatrist and spin doctor passes their way again.

No one else in the game today could do what John Calipari is doing at Kentucky.

Most simply wouldn't want to.

 

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