Perspective | John Calipari was great until he wasn’t good enough for Kentucky

Perspective | John Calipari was great until he wasn’t good enough for Kentucky

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Leave it to John Calipari to upstage the national championship game and an eclipse.

On the day Connecticut easily won its second straight men’s title and a solar eclipse captivated millions worldwide, the basketball world was stunned when news leaked that Calipari was considering leaving Kentucky to become the coach at Arkansas.

Calipari, who announced Tuesday that he was leaving Kentucky but did not specify his next stop, coached the Wildcats to the national championship in 2012 and to four Final Fours in five seasons between 2011 and 2015. He was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. He has won 855 games at Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky combined and took all three schools to the Final Four — although the NCAA vacated U-Mass.’s 1996 trip and Memphis’s 2008 appearance. It also docked Calipari 42 wins for his programs’ transgressions.

When Calipari turned 52 in 2011, he joked he was actually 50 because the NCAA had vacated two of his birthdays.

That was typical Cal, as almost everyone in the sport calls him: quick with a one-liner, aware of how to deal with the spotlight and smarter than most of those around him.

He was 29 when he took over a U-Mass. program that had experienced 10 consecutive losing seasons. He completely turned around the Minutemen, making the NCAA tournament five years in a row and reaching the Final Four in 1996.

After an unsuccessful stint with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, he returned to college at Memphis and again built a successful program, just missing a national championship in 2008.

No one in college athletics cares about coaches who color outside the lines as long as they win, which is why no one at Kentucky thought much about the vacated Final Fours when Calipari was hired in 2009 to replace Billy Gillispie when the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament after 17 straight appearances.

Cal’s first team went 35-3 and reached an NCAA regional final. Then came the four Final Fours in five seasons, including a 38-0 record entering the 2015 Final Four.

And, amazingly, the Wildcats haven’t been back since. They have been to two regional finals and an additional Sweet 16, but that isn’t nearly enough for Kentucky’s fans, who consider Final Fours a birthright and national titles to be bonuses that should arrive at least every few years.

Calipari knew the past three seasons — a first-round loss to 15th-seeded St. Peter’s, a second-round loss to Kansas State and a first-round loss this season to 14th-seeded Oakland — would be deemed unacceptable in Kentucky. That is why he was open to the idea of fleeing after winning 410 games over 15 seasons.

I first met Calipari at the Five-Star camp in 1984, when we sat together while Rick Pitino was conducting a clinic.

“I want to be that good someday,” Cal said while watching Pitino, who was as brilliant conducting a clinic as anyone.

Cal was then a 25-year-old assistant on Larry Brown’s staff at Kansas. Three years later, he became the coach at Massachusetts, and by the mid-1990s he was coaching one of the best teams in the country. Doing a story on what became a Final Four team in 1996, I asked him what he liked best about the group.

He shrugged and said, “They don’t think they poop ice cream.”

Cal can be generous. In 1994, I needed to find a top-10 team to play in a charity college basketball event that raised money for at-risk kids in the D.C. area. Cal agreed to bring U-Mass. to Washington to face Maryland because he found the cause worthy.

And he also can rub people the wrong way. A couple of years earlier, he so infuriated Temple’s John Chaney that Chaney burst into Cal’s postgame news conference repeatedly yelling, “I’ll kill you!” before security restrained him.

One month later, at the Final Four, I was talking to Cal in the lobby of the coaches hotel when Chaney walked up. I stepped back, not wanting to get in between the two. Chaney threw his arms around Calipari and said: “Cal, you are a pain in the a–. Whoever told you to get so good?”

The line between cockiness and confidence is fine, and Cal sometimes crossed it. In 2010, after his first Kentucky team had lost to West Virginia in the regional final, Cal showed up at the NBA draft in a tuxedo, there to celebrate the record five players from his team drafted in the first round. Cal called it “the greatest night in the history of Kentucky basketball.” Trust me: Kentucky fans didn’t see it that way.

Cal was forgiven, though, when Kentucky won the national championship in 2012 and reached three more Final Fours. Entering the 2015 event in Indianapolis, the Wildcats were heavy favorites to win another title and become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated.

It didn’t happen. The score was tied with under three minutes remaining, but Wisconsin closed the game with an 11-4 run to win, 71-64. The thousands of Kentucky fans leaving the building in complete silence was stunning.

Cal has not forgotten how to coach at age 65. In the nine seasons since the 2015 “failure,” Kentucky has averaged just under 25 wins.

This is a great move for him because his overall legacy will remain intact in Kentucky, and he’ll remain popular with media and fans as he begins his next chapter.

Kentucky fans will celebrate whoever the new coach is — as long as he wins. And wins. And wins. Then, after the first 20-12 season, they’ll start wondering whom they can hire next. That’s the nature of Kentucky.

And it is exactly why Calipari is no longer there.

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