It appears as if John Calipari is thinking about becoming the next coach at the University of Kentucky. Not surprising. Calipari has always been the guy winning truckloads of games on the periphery of college basketball’s limelight. UMass. Memphis. To coach at one of the sport’s most storied addresses is something that has to appeal to him. In fact, I’m surprised he hasn’t moved into the presidential suite at the Marriott Griffin Gate (is there one?) and started calling recruits.
I am surprised, however, that UK has decided to pursue him. One promise Mitch Barnhart made fans when he arrived as athletic director was that the basketball program would be clean. Calipari is a great many things. “Clean” is not a word, fairly or unfairly, that has ever been applied to him. I think this is an indication that Barnhart is not driving the bus on this matter. Either that, or he has decided that winning trumps all.
And let’s understand this very clearly. Calipari will win at Kentucky. He will win big. He’ll become a big, blue recruiting monster.
My opinions on Calipari are mixed and evolving. Here’s what I said when his name came up for the Kentucky job two years ago.
Of all the UK coaching speculation I hear from fans, there’s one name that I absolutely can’t believe I’m hearing — John Calipari. . . .
Starting for Calipari’s team is a player named Jeremy Hunt. He was arrested for beating up his girlfriend in January of 2005. He gave her a black eye, a bruised nose and multiple body bruises. He worked her over pretty good. The arrest report says he punched her in the face six times. He also broke his hand in a fight outside a Beale Street bar. Calipari kicked him off the team, but took him back once he completed his diversion program. Memphis’ starting point guard, Andre Allen, was charged before the season with soliciting a prostitute. He missed one game, and has averaged 20 minutes a game this season for the Tigers. . . .
Calipari’s only trip to the Final Four has been wiped from the NCAA record books because star forward Marcus Camby was on the take . . .
Calipari was cleared of all wrongdoing in the affair. UMass, however, had to forfeit all 35 games from that season and repay $160,000 in tournament earnings. . . .
Williams, it now appears, also was receiving large amounts of cash from a shady lawyer in Virginia during his time at Memphis . . .
All of which leads to the question: Are you people serious?
That history is what it is. And you can find more such characters through Memphis’ background. You can find William Wesley, one of the more notorious figures in the shadows of college basketball. If UK fans are all right with Wesley escorting a player through Senior Night festivities, as he did at Memphis several years back, then they’ve found their man.
To be sure, in Calipari, UK fans may be ready to embrace some of the kinds of things that they look down on in other programs.
But those words I wrote about Calipari two years ago aren’t exactly what I would write today. I spent a lot of time around Calipari and his players when they were making their run to the title game last season. Everybody had a view of the reputation regarding these guys. I heard the word “thug” thrown around a lot.
And yeah, some of these guys were, I’m sure, hard to handle. Joey Dorsey was pretty raw. But it also was one of the more thoughtful, engaging basketball teams I’ve been around in a long time. Chris Douglas-Roberts was one of the most enjoyable college basketball players to watch to come along in a good while. Derrick Rose was, well, we know how gifted he was.
And the style they play, and the style that Calipari has crafted, to me, is one of the most innovative in modern college basketball, perhaps as well-suited to the modern college player as any in the nation right now.
He teaches dogged defense. Always has. He’s an old-school defensive coach.
But offensively, he spreads players out and bases the offense on two things you see in great abundance in playgrounds all over the nation — drives to the basket and the three-point shot.
After beating UCLA in a national semifinal, I heard Rose say in a press conference, “The whole game, I was not going to take a jump shot. It was crazy. I was just going to go to the hole and get fouled and try to go to the line, and it worked out.”
Think that doesn’t take great discipline? Not many players — especially players as talented as Rose — could execute something like that. But Calipari had his players doing it.
Listen to what Chris Douglas-Roberts said about their team, and their identity.
“Don’t get me wrong, now, a couple of players on our team have done some really dumb things. I mean, that’s just being honest. We make mistakes. … People look at our tattoos and make assumptions. Somebody asked why would you put your girlfriend’s name on your neck? Well, it’s my mother. There’s a Bible scripture (Psalm 31:1-3) on my arm. We just want to be looked at as regular student-athletes.”
They do have a certain look, but those “assumptions” are dangerous.
Calipari attracts his own set of assumptions.
But he can absolutely coach. And in the two years since I wrote my last take on whether he should come to UK, he has shown that he can take a team to the elite level, and that he can attract some of the best talent in college basketball and craft a system in which that talent can thrive.
I suppose if you’re UK, the best case scenario is that Calipari can use the power of the program’s prestige to get in on the very best talent every year, and that the program’s in-place safeguards can ward off some of the less-savory assumptions, if not elements. You bank on the fact that the NCAA has not stuck anything on Calipari in his blindingly successful time in Memphis.
But you’d also better understand — those assumptions that follow Calipari, will now attach themselves to your program. Which, while among the most storied in college basketball, is also one of the most penalized in college basketball.
I suppose my bottom line is that I have more of an appreciation for Calipari as a coach than I had two years ago.
The reward — big-time success and exposure — is a given. But the spotlight at Kentucky is very bright. And if anything turns up in the glare, fans in Lexington need only cast a glance up to Bloomington to see the risks involved.
It’s still a risk for UK. But it appears to be a Cal-culated risk that UK may well be ready to take.