Kentucky Basketball: Tom Izzo And John Calipari Show Us All How Smack Talk Is Done Right

Kevin C. Cox

Tom Izzo and Coach Cal have dropped a little smack in the media lately, and it is great stuff.

I wanted to comment on this yesterday but didn't have the time. Today, I'll make time, because it's a story I think deserves some exploration. That story is the give and take between Michigan St. Spartans coach Tom Izzo and Kentucky coach John Calipari.

According to a student in attendance at the Spartans' first official practice, where the student section known as the "Izzone" was made available for the students to attend, Izzo said this:

Now, Kentucky fans all know that we have Michigan St. the third game of the season in the Champions Classic, and we also know that Izzo is a great coach who takes teams with less talent than many and turns them into contenders every year. This year's MSU team is both talented and experienced, and will no doubt give UK all it wants, and maybe more, in the Champions Classic.

But Calipari is never one to let a challenge go unanswered, and I think we have all come to expect that if you drop a comment like that out there, a response is forthcoming. Here was Coach Cal's at the Louisville Alumni Luncheon:

"Our third game is against Michigan State," Calipari said. "That's going to be hard. They're already a veteran team. They've already made comments that their practices are about beating Kentucky. But I say this to you: If I ask my team when we play Florida, they're not going to know. North Carolina. I'm going to do it today, because as I thought about it, they don't know. You think they know when we're playing Louisville? They don't know. They want to know if there is a meal tonight. They don't know.

"Now, I ask you this: Does everyone on our schedule know when they're playing Kentucky? Oh, they know. And it's on their locker, it's on their ceiling of their bedroom. You've got to deal with that. That's part of being at Kentucky. You know what I tell them? Not only do they want to beat Kentucky, they want to beat you as individual player. You want to know why? They wanted that scholarship that you got and they want to prove they're better than you, not just their team is better than Kentucky." [My emphasis]

There was also this, in a comment to KSR:

The first came last week on Kentucky sports radio, when Calipari, after referencing Izzo’s quote, said teams don’t just want to beat Kentucky for sheer competitive purposes. "It’s not just Kentucky they want to beat, it’s you, because you got the scholarship offer they wanted."

Consistency in the media is something Calipari is good at.

So this is what their comments boil down to in translation:

  • Izzo: "We are going to kick your butt, Calipari."
  • Calipari: "Yeah, you lesser guys are always talking that trash. Get back to me when you are as awesome as we are."

That's how you smack talk right there, and trust me, there is no coach I'd rather hear smack talk from than Tom Izzo. That's because he's the kind of coach every school wants — hard-nosed, competitive, but classy. He doesn't mind a little back-and-forth in good humor, and that's great. I could never take anything Izzo said as a pejorative because I have appreciated him for a long time, and I know he has too much class to descend into the gutter.

Calipari may not be for everyone, but he is perfect for Kentucky. With all due respect to the Michigan St. fans, and as good as MSU is, they are not even in the same solar system as Kentucky, and they are manifestly a lesser program in the historic sense. I wouldn't consider them "lesser" at the moment, though, they are definitely more fairly characterized as a peer, much in the way that Louisville is considered at this instant.

MSU probably belongs in the same orbit as teams like Cincinnati, North Carolina St., Florida, etc. They are not in the top tier of historic programs like UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Indiana. As an aside, I'd put them in the tier just below teams like Louisville and UConn. In terms of all-time wins, MSU is way down the list at #36, but they do have two championships.

I like it when two coaches who respect each other talk a little mild smack in a polite way, without getting personal or snippish as the Rick Pitino-John Calipari give-and-take has been (for the record, Card fans, I'm not blaming that all on Pitino, it's on both of them). It's good to see two pros showing us all how smack talk should be done, and how you can have partisan fun without being a jerk.

Andy Glockner, in the second article linked above, had this to say:

Leave it to Calipari, the best recruiter in college basketball, to take Izzo’s dig and turn it into an endorsement for Kentucky basketball.

ESPN's Eamonn Brennan had a similar take:

See what I mean? [Calipari is] a genius.

I know, I know: It gets really old reading that. But what else are you supposed to say? The same guy who has turned the one-and-done rule into his personal annual NBA talent showcase, who coined "players first" and repeated it approximately once every five minutes for four years straight, who got Drake and Jay-Z on board with a program from Lexington, Ky. -- this is a man who knows marketing.

Finally, Rob Dauster at NBC joins the chorus of awe:

But I’ll tell you what, no one can spin the way that Coach Cal can spin: "Oh, you’re biggest game of the year is against us? Well guess what. We’re trying to go undefeated, so EVERY game we play is our biggest game of the year. Because we’re so much more awesome than you."

I’m sure this will rankle some feathers, but you know what?

I love it.

And I cannot wait for Izzo to fire back.

Me too. Great stuff.

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