John Calipari: As Good as it Gets?

John Calipari has reason to be happy.

"Poor man want to be rich, rich man want to be king, and the king ain't satisfied until he rules everything."

Bruce Springsteen (Badlands' lyric)

When John Calipari was hired as the University of Kentucky basketball coach on April 1, 2009, his arrival in Lexington was met by the Big Blue Nation with an enthusiasm only surpassed by fan expectations for what lay ahead for the UK basketball program. Coming off a four-year drought, articulated by the team's 84-52 record, and an NIT appearance in 2009, 'Cat fans were weary of mediocrity and ready for the program to reclaim its spot atop the college basketball hierarchy.

Calipari, though, in his first public pronouncement after being hired to lead the Wildcats, made it abundantly clear that rebuilding Camelot would be neither easy, nor quickly attained.

"I told Dr. (Lee) Todd, and Mitch (Barnhart), 'If you want something to happen in a year, do not hire me," Calipari said, tempering 'Cat fan expectations. "'But when we get it right, you notice we're No. 1 in the country, we're No. 1 seeds (in the NCAA tournament), we're playing in Final Fours, when we get it right.'"

Calipari has not only gotten "it right" on the court, but he's nearly flawlessly navigated the myriad of responsibilities he's charged with as leader of the UK basketball program, from public relations, to recruiting, to coaching the team.

After the jump, I offer my take on Calipari's three-year performance in three different areas, beginning with ...

Public Relations

Cal's use of Facebook, Twitter, and CoachCal.com, are groundbreaking for a major college basketball coach. He uses all three social networks to not only keep the Kentucky fan base in touch with what's happening within the UK basketball program, but also as a recruiting tool, allowing those athletes he desires to bring to Lexington to get a glimpse of the type of person he is, both on and off the court.

And in a stroke of brilliance, Cal's two-to-three minute post game wrap-ups, filmed immediately after games, and posted on CoachCal.com, give the BBN an "insider's," first blush look into what went right and what went wrong in each game, according to Coach Cal.

With Cal's Facebook account registering 350,000-plus followers and his Twitter account followed by over 1.1 million people, Cal stays in touch, on a regular basis, with fans and recruits alike, giving each group a chance to know what's going on behind the scenes of the Wildcat program.

More recently, "Cal and Friends" -- including former coach and sometimes Cal counsel Joe B. Hall, along with Adolph Rupp's son Herky -- touring the state with the NCAA National Championship trophy was simply a stroke of genius, for it gave fans who have never, and probably never would have, a chance to see Cal and the trophy, up close and personal.

Conversely, Cal's PR mistakes have been few and far between, but include him making very public his intention to host a fundraiser for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, an event he eventually canceled in the face of criticism from within the Commonwealth. In hindsight, Cal would have been better served to simply write a check.

Also, his handling of former UK walk-on and Paintsville High School star Landon Slone, not long after Calipari took the Kentucky job, was a misstep in some fans' eyes -- Slone wanted the opportunity to plead his case to remain on the Wildcat squad, but Cal failed to meet with him. He eventually transferred to Morehead State and later to the University of Pikeville.

Some might argue that Cal's proud proclamation the day five Wildcats were drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, "the greatest day in UK basketball history, was misguided, but they would be wrong.

"I said this a couple of years ago and everybody got crazy when we had five guys drafted in the first round," Calipari stated after UK beat Kansas for the national championship. "This (having five players drafted in the first round) is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history. The reason was, I knew how other kids would look and say, 'You got to go there.'"

Even disapproving fans have to give Cal credit. He took the PR heat for what he knew would be an effective recruiting tool.

Recruiting

Calipari has no illusions when it comes to knowing what it takes to win on the big time college basketball stage.

"There's three keys to winning a championship," Cal said not long after taking the UK job. "The first thing is have really good players. The second thing is have really good players. And I hate to tell you, that's the third thing" also.

Calipari knows winning big is all about having the best players, and in this one-and-done age of collegiate basketball, he's found a way to connect with the elite players in the country, like few, if any, before him. Through Coach Cal's, it's-a-players-first-program mindset, he tells players it's all about the team during the season, and all about the players when the season is over.

"As a basketball coach I don't make a whole lot of promises; never have," Calipari said at his first press conference as UK head coach. "But we make commitments. The commitments being; this will be about players first," Calipari declared. "I know how big this program is, but it's only big because of the players who have gone through here. This program will be about players first."

Calipari amplified and re-emphasized his players-first mentality at Big Blue Madness 2011.

"It's about our players, past and current, making the next step in their lives. We're still here to serve these players, and create an environment for them to succeed."

And in an action-is-louder-than-words triumph, when sitting in a high school player's living room, Calipari is able to point to the previous players he's coached, players who are successful, with most playing in the NBA, and say: that's what I'm going to do for you.

In essence, that is what Calipari does. He tells prospects -- who if allowed, would be declaring for the Draft out of high school -- he will make their professional basketball dreams come true.

At the same time, Cal conveys to the recruit the fact that Kentucky isn't for everybody. The crushing pressure, the ubiquitous scrutiny, the competition for playing time; it's all part of being a Kentucky Wildcat, and it's not for every basketball player with a five-star rating.

"The recruiting process, we don't promise people how often they'll start, how many shots" they'll get per game, Cal said soon after being hired. "It's hard to come and play here. It's not for everybody." Calipari continued, "There's no place to hide, no crack to go down into. It's not for everybody."

Calipari also knows the personality and motivation of each player is vitally important to team chemistry, which in turn is part-and-parcel of winning. In other words, Cal has to find elite high school players he feels will fit into the team concept. He is searching for players who are coachable, and want to get better. Because five superstar, me-first attitudes does not a championship team make.

"Once again, it is about becoming one unit with a single heartbeat, a single cause, and a unified love shared among teammates, (and) staff," Calipari said at Big Blue Madness 2011.

Finally, Calipari is able put a bow on his recruiting pitch with the 'Kentucky Effect.'

"We talk about the Kentucky Effect, that is the Kentucky Effect; having high aspirations and standards in everything you do," said Calipari at last year's Big Blue Madness. "The Kentucky Effect is about being the best in all areas. It is pushing and promoting our players and putting them in the best position to reach their dreams. They will in turn help us create the lifelong memories and lift the banners that we all yearn for."

This is why Calipari has recruited four straight No. 1 recruiting classes. This is why Calipari has bagged the four top players in each recruiting class, four years in a row. This is why Cal is re-defining how to recruit, and why Cal is King of Kentucky.

The players? They buy it because Cal's words and actions are genuine, and go hand in hand.

"For us as players who play for him it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit anytime we win, and he'll take all the fault if anything goes wrong," Terrence Jones said after the 'Cats beat Kansas. "Just to win for him is something special."

From Terrence's mouth to the ears of recruits.

Coaching

As head coach, Calipari melds his new, elite players into a unit, aided by the fact that he has already selected athletes likely to commit to playing team basketball.

"Again, it's about the recruiting process,"Calipari said the Sunday before the title game. "If your best players are selfish, you're going to have a selfish team. "We've been fortunate that we've had the players, like this (team), that share the ball. Our best players have all been good guys."

In today's world, well, at Kentucky anyway, coaching is about being Phil Jackson and Pat Riley -- coaches who gelled great individuals into great teams. Only at Kentucky, John Calipari has a very short window of opportunity in which to maximize team chemistry, making his job tougher than most, but as of yet, Cal has proved to be quite the maestro when orchestrating individuals into one.

  • Calipari is 102-14 in his UK coaching career, for a jaw dropping .879 winning percentage.
  • He's averaging 34 wins per year against only 4.6 losses.
  • Cal is 24-4 when taking on a ranked opponent.
  • In the NCAA tournament, Calipari has won 13 games and lost two.
  • This year, Calipari tied his own national record for most wins in a season with 38 (Cal's Final Four Memphis squad won 38 games in 2008).
  • Additionally, the 'Cats haven't lost in Rupp Arena since Calipari took over, 51 home games ago.

The numbers are mind-numbing, and to Kentucky fans, feeling no pain is what it's all about.

X's and O's and a Wrap-up

Calipari is nothing if not flexible, as it pertains to what type of offense and defense he runs. He will switch from a pick-and-roll offense, to the dribble drive, or the more traditional motion offenses, based on his personnel and what the opponent is giving him. Cal will push the pace, or play a half court game, generally, it matters not to him.

Very simply, Calipari is not set-in-stone in his coaching philosophy. A philosophy which concisely breaks down like this: whatever wins games, that's what I'm going to do.

When Calipari first arrived at Kentucky, he set the Wildcat expectations bar at a national championship level.

"They don't put banners up here for anything except a national champion," Cal said at his first press conference. "That's why you want to coach here. We want to compete every year, and hopefully add to this wall."

I, like many other UK followers, were certain the day Calipari was hired that he would succeed at Kentucky. The only question was how high would Cal take the 'Cats, and how quickly would it take him to restore Kentucky as the Gold Standard of college basketball?

Two Final Fours and a national title in three years. People, that's the sonic boom of restoration projects, and the primary reason John Calipari has done about as good a job as anyone in college coaching history, over three consecutive years.

And that, my big blue brethren, is as good as it gets.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

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