Calipari has a ton of political capital right now, and he's spending it.
You know, when I first read this article by John Calipari over at CoachCal.com (hat tip: A2D2), I was nonplussed. I thought, at the outset, he was arguing for a softer pre-conference schedule in order to, in his words, "protect ... these players." But after I read it again more carefully, and then again, I found that most of my concerns were unfounded.
Note: This article will not be about whether or not Calipari's idea comports with the ideal of college athletics, or rehashing the many arguments about academic integrity. That is beyond the scope of this piece and belongs in other threads.
What Calipari is arguing here is four main points: First, UK is no longer "traditional" because we expect to lose large portions of our team to the professional leagues every year. That is an expectation, not a possibility. In his words:
The 25-year-old model doesn’t work anymore. It is done and blown up. We are going by our own model now: the gold standard. Everyone has to accept that.
There is no doubt that Kentucky is going its own way here, and we must either accept the reality that the coach is not going to go the traditional route, or replace him with somebody who will. We are not replacing Coach Cal, so that means that we have to accept his method, like it or not. I'm fine with that. As we saw just this past year, the non-traditional method is just as exciting and fulfilling, from a fan standpoint, as the traditional way. You just have to get used to the idea of saying goodbye sooner.
The second point, which works hand-in-hand with the first, is that high turnover teams require a different type of schedule. My reflexive reaction to this was to assume he was talking about a weaker schedule, thus my confused and unhappy feelings after the first reading. And he was, but not in the way I originally thought.
What he is talking about is the death of most high-profile non-conference games as home-and-home series with Kentucky. He is insistent on moving these contests to neutral sites. That does not include the Louisville game, although he attempts a subtle dig at Cardinals fans by suggesting it might be on the block as well, but I think that is just joking around. He also wants to do these games on 2-year contracts to give him more the flexibility. He puts it this way:
We will no longer have multiple contracts of longer than two years. Because of our roster turnover, it makes it difficult to lock ourselves into five home-and-home series. If we need to replace a team for a year or two, we will have the option to do that to protect our program. If eight guys leave and go in the first round, and we’re not the type of team that can play a ridiculously hard schedule, then we shouldn’t be locked into contracts we can’t adjust.
What this says to me is that he plans to play the power programs when they have to replace a lot of players as well. I'm not sure how this will go over, and it opens him up to some significant criticism. It is also possible that the power programs will not be willing to accept this sort of manipulation. If you're going to do this, you'd better make sure you make a lot of Final Four appearances. The "protect our program" rubric will only get you so far.
With that said, I totally agree with moving most of the big games to neutral sites, and I find his reasoning compelling, if not really dispositive. Calipari is right that the NCAA tournament is not played at any home arenas, and neutral site games arguably prepare you better for what is to come than a home-and-home series.
There is a legitimate argument that playing tough road games prepare you better for the NCAA tournament than almost anything else. Would anyone argue that the game in Bloomington last year against the Indiana hurt UK? I don't think it did, although this was a particularly tough group of players with some senior leadership. Plus, UK gets plenty of tough road games in conference, most years. Would it be harder for a younger group, like what we will have next year, especially early? Arguably yes, although that argument doesn't seem to me to be totally convincing.
His third point is the fan angle. Calipari argues, in essence that they will protect the season ticket holders while providing more opportunities for non-season ticket holders and expatriate fans who can't get to, or get into, Rupp Arena during the normal home schedule. I happen to completely agree with this reasoning, as it creates more opportunities for fans who rarely get to see games to have seats available for big ones, particularly in stadiums like Lucas Oil Stadium. That place can be configured to hold up to 70,000, is a reasonable drive from Kentucky, and would provide a great atmosphere for a big-time game while providing an abundance of tickets. I think this makes sense, although season ticket holders might have a reason to complain, depending on what the package includes.
Finally, there is the financial angle, which I also happen to agree with. Neutral site games at big stadiums put more butts in the seats, and as a result, increase the revenue for both teams. That money can certainly be put to use. For all I care, it could all be added to the amount contributed to UK every year, increasing the athletics department support for UK. But whatever they do with it, I'm sure a good use could be found.
Finally, there is this:
As we move forward in the coming weeks, we will let you know what our schedule looks like and who our upcoming opponents are. I think you’re going to be excited about it, but remember, we are a nontraditional program, so start thinking nontraditionally.
Is this a warning of impending disappointment? Sure looks that way, but I'll be reserving judgment until we see who is on the schedule. If IU and North Carolina gets replaced by Dartmouth, Western Kentucky, or even Wake Forest and their ilk, I think you'll have a good number of complaints. Major Big Ten, ACC, Big East Big 12 or Pac12 opponents would probably work, and there are plenty, but a lower-tier or even a mid-level power conference opponent like Seton Hall, Kansas St or Oregon is not going to bring rave reviews.
In all, I think Coach Cal and I are mostly on the same page. I think at the end of the day, if UK is in the Final Four every year, I don't think it much matters if he schedules like Billy Donovan has in the non-conference schedule. After all, the entire season is now being geared toward March, and increasing the chances of a one seed, at least the part of the schedule UK can control. Calipari's trying to thread the needle and schedule no tougher than required to avoid having the non-conference schedule be viewed negatively by the selection committee and prevent a fan revolt.
At this point in time, Calipari could schedule nothing but directional universities to go along with Louisville, and the Big Blue Nation would support it. That's what happens to a coach when he wins the NCAA Tournament around here. Some of us old-timers might complain about the quality of the teams, but most of the fans won't care as long as he delivers in March.
That's what he's banking on here, and he has plenty of capital to spend. Count on the media to give him, and us, a lot of grief, though.