The question came up again today in a segment ESPN.com’s Pat Forde did with Outside The Lines. “What changed about Calipari from two years ago (when UK didn’t look his way)?” UK fans are breathing fire over this. Calipari himself dashed out a quick tweet in response. Not sure what everybody is so riled up about.
The day Calipari was hired, the front page of The Courier-Journal carried a column I wrote headlined, “Two big seasons led Calipari to UK.” A day later, I wrote about how UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart’s hiring process was different this year than it was when he wound up with Billy Gillispie.
But, since the question is a topic of conversation, let’s take another look at what did change in two years . . .
1). Calipari went to the NCAA championship game. Let’s not forget, when UK was not looking Calipari’s direction before, he had not advanced past the Elite Eight since his run with UMass. But when he made it to the title game two seasons ago, and won Naismith Coach of the Year honors, it made the college hoops establishment look at him in a different light.
2). Memphis’ headlines stayed on the sports pages. They’d had a rocky run at Memphis, where the police blotter is concerned, for a while. But in the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons, the news about Memphis was made mostly on the court.
3). The national media got to know Memphis. You can’t understate the importance of the 2008 Final Four for Calipari and the Tigers. Before that, most members of the media around the nation knew Memphis only by reputation and the occasional national TV appearance. They hadn’t sat down with Chris Douglas-Roberts or Joey Dorsey. When they got the chance to meet those players at the Final Four, they learned that this was a bunch that was able to laugh at itself, offer insight into the game and their style, and articulate pretty well the experience they were having. And while most of the media had had experience with Calipari, I think it began to see him in a different way, too. He stood in contrast to coaches who dictated their personalities onto players in every setting. Calipari, on the other hand, found a framework in which players could play their games and be themselves, for better or worse. And I think where a lot of national folks might have just viewed it as anarchy before, they began to see the design in it, and appreciate it to a degree.
I won’t forget the California paper that called the Memphis-UCLA game a “coaching mismatch,” stating outright that Calipari wasn’t in the same league as Bruins’ coach Ben Howland. When asked about the “coaching mismatch” remark, Calipari handled it well, saying, “Come on. I don’t think Ben is that bad.” Then Memphis proceeded to out play UCLA not only with its offense, but its defense.
4. The NCAA didn’t set up a field office in Memphis. There were a many insinuations about the Memphis program, but at the height of its success, the NCAA either wasn’t sniffing around Memphis, or did its sniffing and found no problems.
5. Calipari backed up his title game run. While Billy Donovan followed back-to-back national titles with two NIT appearances, Calipari lost three players to the NBA Draft and reloaded to get back to the Sweet 16. It was a young Memphis team that bowed out this season, but one that was clearly poised to continue rising, with the recruits Calipari was pursuing.
6. Kentucky’s administration changed. Mitch Barnhart, two years prior, discounted the importance of having a strong public personality at the helm of the basketball program. Billy Gillispie taught him some lessons.
Barnhart flat-out said it: “Everybody lives and learns, as do I. Last time didn’t work out. Did I learn from that? Hopefully, I got better this time. . . . I know I’m happy with where we are and the coach we got.”
That’s about it. Nothing too complicated. You can’t look at the past two seasons and say Calipari didn’t gain some clout. You don’t go 71-6, go undefeated in two conference seasons, reach the NCAA title game and win national coach of the year without gaining a little stature. To look at those two seasons, with the stories both on and off the court, it’s not hard to see why Calipari was seen in a different light.