John Calipari, Minor Leagues, & the Kentucky Wildcats

Robert KahneContributor IJune 28, 2010

NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 18:  Head coach John Calipari talks with John Wall #11 of the Kentucky Wildcats during a timeout against the East Tennessee State Buccaneers during the first round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 18, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Wildcats defeated the Buccaneers 100-71.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

I am a Kentucky Wildcat fan, and will always look back at April 1, 2009—the day John Calipari was hired—as a day when everything changed for our program.  After four years of underachieving (by Kentucky's admittedly ridiculous standards), Kentucky was going to be on top again.

The 2009-2010 basketball season was amazing.  Coach Cal came in and his team achieved an overall record of 35-3, wins over every single one of our rivals, an SEC regular season and tournament championship, and almost a final four.

However, after the season ended, Kentucky fans did what Kentucky fans do—they nitpicked the crap out of everything.  

Questions were raised about Calipari's strategy: people seem to be second guessing recruiting one-and-done players and their ability to win championships.  Last week the NBA draft saw five Kentucky players go in the first round, which Calipari stated was the "biggest day in Kentucky's program's history."  This only added fuel to the fires of the Calipari detractors.

In addition, people (especially critics from outside Kentucky) said that one-and-done players made a mockery of the term "student athlete."  Often, these people point to Kentucky player's 2.025 GPA in the fall semester (which I don't think is a big deal). 

But come on, when you really understand the situation, the logic of it shows that if there is blame to give, none of it belongs with Coach Calipari.

What I mean is this: when people are 18 years old, most of them must face the question "What do I want to do with the rest of my life?"

If you are one of the best basketball players in the world, the answer should be easy: play basketball professionally.  You make millions of dollars a year while traveling the country and are highly valued by everyone in your city.  It's a fantastic gig.

Except there is one problem: you can't play.  Not until you finish one year of college, anyway.  So you have to go to college.  If you are an elite talent, you have absolutely ZERO use for a degree in broadcast journalism, communications, athletic training or whatever subjects in which these elite players take classes.  You are there to play for a year and then bounce.

In essence, the NCAA has become the minor league for the NBA.  This is a shame, and is way out of whack with what the NCAA ought to be doing.  Sports such as hockey and baseball have well developed minor leagues which allow 18 year old kids a legitimate choice: do I want to enter the pros, or go to college?  

If a kid doesn't make it to the MLB or the NHL, they will face life in the minors, where they will make a modest salary that can be as low as $1000/month (Single A baseball) but will likely be closer to $60,000 (IHL Hockey).

If they go to college, they do so most likely to get a degree.  

If they go pro, how fantastic!  But that is not their purpose.  And honestly, if a baseball player goes to college, it is unlikely that they go pro (only 26 players in the whole MLB, including managers have college degrees).

So, let's get back to the issue at hand: John Calipari.  The man can recruit great players.  He has a reputation as a coach who puts kids first, even above himself.  He has proved the ability to prepare kids for NBA careers.  

Add to that the fact that Kentucky offers the best prestige and facilities available, and you have a recipe for year-after-year #1 recruiting classes.

However, the best recruits in the country obviously are the ones who want to play basketball professionally, but cannot.  So, these kids are looking to go to college for one year and then go pro.  

It is a well known fact that other coaches will tell a kid that they are not ready for the pros, despite the fact that they clearly are.  One of the reasons that Coach Cal gets such great recruits is because his approach is opposite of that.  

At any rate, what is John Calipari's best option?

To me, it can't be more clear: get the best possible recruiting class.  

Sure, these kids aren't going to be here long, but if they don't come to Kentucky, they are going somewhere else.  And although teams with one-and-done players don't have the best history of winning championships, most of them have looked more like the 2010 Georgia Tech or the 2008 USC team than the 2010 Kentucky team.  

To be quick about it, if you don't think Kentucky will win a championship soon, then you should think again.  I base that statement on both logic AND homerism.

So, to those who criticize John Calipari, I ask you this: what would you do?  Would you really recruit worse players in hopes to keep them around longer?  Would you lie to the kids?  I hope you would do neither of these things.

John Calipari is a great coach and a great mentor stuck inside a broken system.  If anyone deserves blame for what is going on, it is the NCAA, not John Calipari.

Note: Some of this article has been adapted from another piece I wrote for the sports blog for which I contribute, Sports Are Involved.  If you liked this, you should go read the rest of what we have to say!