Coach Calipari: "Players-First" Means Telling The Truth, Even When It Hurts

John Calipari wrote an article yesterday on CoachCal.com describing what a "players-first" program means to him.  It is a short piece, but it goes a long way to explain his philosophy about college basketball in the era of "one and done," and even though there is nothing really surprising in the article, there is a lot more meat there than some may realize.

The first thing Coach Cal touches on is the fact that he doesn't "make outlandish promises" about playing time, minutes, positions, etc.  In this case, what he doesn't say is also instructive -- Calipari doesn't say that he doesn't make promises about these things, he says that he doesn't make promises that he cannot keep, or that don't square with the reality of what the basketball team needs to win.

This might seem to be a small thing, but the concept of keeping promises is probably the single most important factor in why Coach Cal's reputation with players is what it is.  No matter what the media think about Calipari and how he does business, no matter the arguments about "slickness" or "sliminess" that we see from his detractors, the truth of the matter is that today's college basketball recruits know him where most of the commentariat do not -- they know him, and they respect him.

There is a reason you have virtually never seen or heard a former or current player speak ill of Coach Cal. Even players in the NBA who never played for him almost universally speak highly of Calipari, and it''s not his charming personality or natty attire.  He tells it straight and keeps his word, because he doesn't give it lightly.

The second principle Calipari elucidates thus:

The second part is that once the season begins, we are teaching players to be the teammate they want to play with. Our whole focus is on team play. I want individuals to play well but I’m getting them to understand nothing of significance will be accomplished by themselves.

There is a lot more, as most of us know, to being a good teammate than just practicing and playing hard.  We have seen it the last two years at Kentucky when the young bucks come in.  They are used to being the #1 option on their respective high school teams and have never had to subsume their games into a true team concept that demands sacrifice.

The first and most important thing we all learn about being a good teammate is sacrifice -- we must sacrifice our desires, our wants and our glory for that of the team, and force our natural desire to excel into the proper place in a team concept. Every successful marriage learns how to do that eventually -- the two partners must give up things that they otherwise love to do, at least some of the time, in order to make the family work.

This past year, we saw how hard it was for all the players to become good teammates.  Early on, this most recent team looked like anything but.  They hogged the ball, they took bad shots, they did all sorts of things detrimental to team success.  During the year, the 2010-11 Wildcats often struggled to generate the kind of passion, both out of themselves and out of Kentucky fans, that the 2009-10 team did.  It took nearly the whole season before the totality of the Big Blue Nation were fully emotionally invested in last year's Wildcats, and that's because it took just as long for the players to truly become a team.  Fans are very sensitive to that, and that's why there was such angst among the Big Blue faithful only 3 weeks before that remarkable run to the Final Four.

The final principle Coach Cal discusses is the thing that some in the commentariat have begun to deride -- when the season is over, Calipari considers it his job to "help them make the best decisions, with the best information I can give them, for them and their families."  Often, this means strongly advising them to pack their bags and become a professional basketball player, to the apparent detriment of Kentucky basketball and Calipari's personal goals.

How anyone can criticize this philosophy is simply beyond any rational defense.  It would be unethically selfish of John Calipari to try to convince players to return to school and risk injury or a bad season rather than to take the millions of dollars represented by a first-round NBA contract.  As many have so often stated, there is no degree program in college that pays what an NBA team does to a first-round draft choice.  There are no letters after your name that will earn you as much money in ten to fifteen years as an NBA salary will. 

The NBA is a good way to make a living, and if you asked every Division I player in America with any post-college basketball hopes whether they would stay in school or enter the NBA Draft if they were guaranteed to be drafted in the first round, something north of 90% would place their names in the draft.  The commentariat would tell you that it is wrong for Calipari to recruit players who have no intention to stay in college, but the unspoken truth is that the vast majority of players come to college with no intention to stay there if they wind up good enough to be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft.  Unfortunately for them, more than 90% won't be good enough.

That makes the meme that the press continually tries to foist on America one of the most dishonest I have seen anywhere, in any segment of reporting.  It is not really arguable that these complainers don't know reality, it's just that the people who consume their news want to hear the viewpoint expounded that "student-athletes" are players who come to school first, and play basketball second.

The truth that many in the chattering classes do not want to speak is that this definition of "student-athlete" is obsolete, and is not to be found in today's world in any significant concentration.  Every boy who grows up playing basketball dreams of playing in the NBA, even though only a tiny fraction wind up having what it takes to get there.  When we come to the realization that dream is no longer viable, we comfort ourselves and our ego by claiming it wasn't really what we wanted anyway.  That's human nature.

What I like about Coach Cal is that he has the courage to be honest about this, and not give lip service to the lifeless corpse of "how it should be" that the press trots out this time of year to mollify idealists, elitists, and college administrators.  Calipari doesn't tell players not to stay in school, he points out to them life's realities, what the consequences of each decision is, and tries to get them as much information about what is likely to happen as possible.  The decisions these players make are the same ones you and I would make if we were in their shoes the vast majority of the time, and the same ones the scolds in media and academia would have made had they been Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and DeAndre Liggins.

They just won't admit it.

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UPDATE:  Rob Dauster of Ballin' Is A Habbit has related thoughtsESPN's Diamond Leung also.

Matt Jones writing for CBS:

Calipari then rejected the dichotomy laid out in the Bozich piece and said that it was a "lie" to suggest that "it's impossible to win championships with that type of young, elite talent." He goes further to suggest that it is a "ludicrous statement" to argue that a program can't win championships with players who seek to leave for their NBA dreams early.

Chip Miller at The UK Nation has more.

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