You might say to yourself, "Wait a minute, doesn't this discussion about John Calipari leaving Kentucky belong at the end of the season?" We do always seem to have it there, but today, a post by Larry Vaught inspired me to take a look at the issue from a broader perspective.
Calipari will not stay at Kentucky forever, despite the desires of the Big Blue Nation that he do just that. At some point, he's going to want to move on to whatever comes next. What I'll do in here is speculate what that might be.
Coach Cal is 53 years old right now, and in what most would consider his prime earning (and coaching) years. It is at this point that he is at or near the peak of his persuasive powers, primarily because energy gets harder and harder to find as you get older. As active as Calipari is, the zest for all this effort is eventually going to begin to subside, or at least, it does in most people. Coaching at Kentucky the way Calipari does (and frankly, I consider him the modern gold standard) is extremely time-consuming and difficult.
With that said, Calipari has come to look at the basketball team as his replacement family of kids (he and his wife, Ellen, are near to becoming empty-nesters). You have to really love young people to put as much effort into creating a family atmosphere as Coach Cal does, and I am positive he absolutely loves doing it. There's no doubt that he's happy in his current place, and the last three years have brought many career and personal rewards to him with very little adversity. If things keep going like they are, who knows how much longer he'll continue?
So how long can we expect to have this fine coach, and fine man, leading our basketball team to championships? Calipari himself has said that he can't see himself coaching into his 60's, although I must say that I myself don't quite buy that, even though I'm sure he meant it when he said it. Modern medicine has made it possible for us to be much more active later in life, and to coin a phrase, "60 is the new 55." I would be slightly surprised if Calipari did not coach at least until his official retirement age around 65.
But will he stay at Kentucky?
Of course, we don't know, but there are a few things that suggest he might. The first is that there is really no "up" from Kentucky. Now, we can't rule out the possibility that Calipari may want to take on a lesser challenge like Rick Pitino has (God, I love gigging Rick Pitino), but we all know that Calipari waited a large part of his life for the opportunity to coach here. He had a great gig at Memphis, had built the program to a level that it could possibly become competitive even with the Dukes, North Carolinas and Kentuckys of this world, and yet chose to leave -- not for a bigger salary, Memphis outbid Kentucky -- but for the chance to be Caesar of the Roman Empire of college basketball.
Caesar is exactly what Coach Cal has become -- a semi-divine emperor of the nation's most storied team. There is no "up" from Caesar. There is not even a lateral move. So why would Calipari even consider a step back? My guess is, he would not.
Second, there is the lure of the NBA, which comes up every March after Kentucky is done competing for another NCAA Tournament title. There are always NBA jobs, there is always more money there (although at Coach Cal's paygrade, bigger salaries are fairly rare even in the NBA), and there is the potential prestige of joining his mentor, Larry Brown, as one of the only coaches to win a title in the NBA and college. This is one thing that could be on Calipari's radar, because we know that Coach Cal is a winner, and winners want to win more.
However, Calipari isn't just going to try to make a silk purse out some NBA sow's ear. If this truly interests him, he will wait for an offer from a genuine contender, or a young team that can become a contender. That could come at any time, but I suspect that he won't be interested until at least near the end of his current contract. That's pure speculation, but I don't think winning one NCAA Tournament title is enough for Coach Cal.
Then there is this from Larry Vaught's article:
Chris Woolard, associate athletics director of basketball operations, doesn’t think Calipari will be leaving for the NBA or any other job.
“I really do think this will be Cal’s last stop. He and his family really enjoy it here,” Woolard told the Louisville Quarterback Club during a recent talk. “He loves being the coach at Kentucky and what it allows him to do outside basketball. I think right now with the way things are going with facilities, the support he has in place and the way recruits are excited about coming here, he feels he should be in the mix fo the No. 1 recruiting class every year and should be in the mix to compete for a national title every year.
“He loves it here. He does not talk about the NBA. Some people in the media talk about him going back to the NBA to prove himself. I don’t agree. I think he would love to finish his career here and do everything he can to win a few more championships. I truly think this will be his last coaching stop.”
To be fair, we have to take this with a slight grain of salt. No assistant AD is going to say he thinks a super-popular coach is going to snap up the first NBA job that comes up. However, we do know that Calipari, although his name has been mentioned prominently and repeatedly in connection with several NBA jobs, has either masterfully hidden any potential interest, or is frankly not interested.
When you are able to mold the early careers of so many NBA players, that fact alone could place Calipari in a position of notoriety that nobody else can match. As of this moment, he is on a path to put more players in the NBA than any college coach in history, some of whom are almost certain to become major stars and even superstars. How much of a legacy would it be for Coach Cal if he put vastly more players in the NBA than any coach in history?
Now that would be something that might never be approached, let alone matched. And Kentucky is the perfect vehicle.