When recruits think of John Calipari, this is what they see in their mind's eye.
The title quote was written today by Shane Ryan writing for Grantland, and the truth of it is one of the most amazing things that anyone in college basketball can remember seeing. Right now, as of this moment, John Calipari sits alone at the top of college basketball. He is not just on another level from his peers, he's in a completely different solar system. The level at which Coach Cal recruits is not a level with which anyone in modern college basketball is familiar. It recalls a time long ago, before John Wooden took his act to Westwood -- a time when Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, would select, not recruit, his players.
So it is with Kentucky today, or near enough that the difference is invisible to the naked eye. Calipari doesn't exactly select his recruits, he works harder for them than Rupp had to and probably harder than Wooden had to -- maybe even harder than anyone in college basketball. But the end result is the same. When Coach Cal walks into the gym and shows interest in a player, most coaches consider that player out of reach. That isn't quite literally true, just as it isn't literally true about selection, but it's close enough that the practical results are indistinguishable from the ideal.
John Calipari has turned college recruiting into an art form, and if we continue that metaphor, he has become the Rembrandt of Recruiting. Each year at Kentucky, he has painted a masterpiece in his mind, and even though only one of them managed to go all the way, every one of the legitimately could have.
From Shane Ryan's Grantland piece:
So how do you beat Calipari? A sterling reputation and dogged recruiting? No. An emotional bond between player and school? No. Getting to the player through his family members? Again, no.
Until this year, you could have said, "His teams can't win the big one." No more. You could, and many do, cast aspersions on his character, but the truth of the matter is that the recruits get to meet him face to face, and when you meet him, those pejoratives just don't fit at all. What you see is a coach with a vision, and the kind of brutal honesty today's players want, and need, to hear. They see a winning personality, a winning track record, a legacy of great players he put in the NBA, and the truth about what it takes to get there. Calipari's is the ultimate Pied Piper song, and it is paying off with an unending string of talent headed toward the Bluegrass. The small city of Lexington has been transformed, in three years, back into the center of the college basketball universe, as it was in the late 1990's.
Calipari doesn't, and doesn't need to, guarantee anything except this: At Kentucky, under his tutelage, players will have the opportunity to compete with the best, play with the best, and win the most. And if they work to the best of their ability and put others before themselves, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a first-round NBA draft pick -- and that is one big freaking pot of gold.
Kind of poetic, don't you think? Kentucky, like the idyllic America portrayed by its picturesque bluegrass horse farms and carefree gentry, has become college basketball's land of opportunity.
That has a nice ring to it.