John Calipari recently posted a link to an article from the 1958 Sports Illustrated college basketball preview written by legendary Kentucky Wildcats head coach Adolph Rupp. This article provides for some interesting contrasts and similarities between UK's legendary former head coach, and it's current one.
Coach Cal, in his brief comments introducing the SI article, describes Rupp as being "ahead of his time" in the context of how he viewed and taught his players the game of basketball. I think this is an interesting perspective which we shall examine in some detail.
But before we get to that, let's examine some of the obvious contrasts that reveal themselves between Calipari and Rupp. Many, and possibly most, of the contrasts were informed by the vast gulf of time that separates the two men — they plied their trade under different rules, different values, different environments, and most importantly, different eras.
Part of what makes this exercise so useful is that both Rupp and Calipari were of comparable ages now and at the time Rupp wrote the SI piece. Both men were at or near the very summit of their careers, at the very height of their powers of both persuasion and understanding of the college basketball game.
When you read the article, perhaps the first thing you'll note is Rupp's use of the term, "boys," to describe the young me that he was coaching. To Rupp, this is clearly a term of endearment, although one that would not pass the test of political correctness today. It stands in stark contrast to Calipari, who uses the term "kids" most often to to describe his charges. But the sentiments of both men are clear — they both consider their team to be inexperienced young people, not men.
It's also clear that they both see themselves as teachers, "professors" if you will, of basketball. Consider this:
Maybe it would be well to make a routine check of the methods that we employ here at the university. The boys who have been entrusted to my care, the same as those who have been entrusted to all the professors on the campus, have not been sent here by their parents to fail. They have been sent here to become successful. Therefore, I am of the opinion that my classes in basketball should be taught the same as any other class on the campus.
In this aspect, Calipari is completely right that Rupp was ahead of his time, and transcendently so. Perhaps only John Wooden has ever elucidated a scholarly view of athletics as well as Adolph Rupp. Calipari has a markedly different narrative driven by a widely-held desire to separate athletics and academics. Calipari's answer to this trend is to insist that his charges will do as well in the classroom as they do on the floor, with the implication being, "How can anyone criticize that?"
Rupp was less constrained by the politics of his time, and essentially stated above that the quality of education at the University of Kentucky itself should be as excellent has his own teaching, and by doing so, suggested that the academic instruction at UK was, in fact, likely to be inferior to the quality of his own efforts at teaching basketball. Can you imagine a coach of today making such a suggestion? He would be pilloried in the sports press and by the educational establishment, especially if such a thought escaped the lips of a guy like Calipari with his huge salary and imputed complicity in the "one and done" culture, which didn't exist in the time of Rupp.
But this still points to an essential quality of both coaches — the idea that basketball is, in fact, a subject taught, not just coached. It is understood by all that some people have a greater aptitude for sports than academics, and vice-versa, but none are born with a perfect knowledge of either. They must be instructed, and the better their instruction, the greater their likelihood of success. This was Rupp's philosophy in a nutshell, and Calipari's as well.
An interesting contrast between Rupp's style, and that of Coach Cal has to do with communication. Consider this:
I was greatly amused at a sportswriter who visited us here this past winter. He came out to watch our practice. My boys shot their free throws, took their warmup practice shots and then went to our fundamental drills and to our organized play. When the practice was over, the sportswriter said, "Don't these boys ever talk?" I said, "Yes, they talk occasionally, but it is generally understood out there that no one is to speak unless he can improve on the silence!" [My emphasis]
This is perhaps the greatest single one-liner I can remember from Coach Rupp, and it stands in stark contrast to the way basketball is coached under Calipari. Calipari demands that his players talk all the time to each other, to communicate. Now, Rupp wasn't necessarily talking about in-game communication, but rather talking during practice drills, but I am positive that Calipari encourages far more verbalizing than Rupp ever did.
Another contrast with Calipari is that Rupp championed players from the state of Kentucky, and Calipari is manifestly agnostic about where they come from. Calipari simply wants the best talent, and Rupp expected the best talent to come to him. This is yet another one of those things I mentioned that were a function of the times the two men lived in, before basketball talent became more important than simply getting the average player to overachieve.
It is interesting, in this aspect, that Rick Pitino is perhaps more like Rupp than Calipari is. Pitino is a renowned teacher of the game, and there is no doubt whatever that getting less talented players to overachieve has always been Pitino's stock-in-trade, and less so for Calipari, although he does achieve that also.
Yet another contrast is the hierarchy that Rupp enforced based on class, which you will never see in college basketball anymore. In fact, given the recent Richie Incognito scandal, this sort of thing will soon pass away as a practice on any level of sport. Consider:
We make the sophomores handle the luggage. We call them the "dead heads." everyone making the first trip [to play on the road], even if he is a newspaper sportswriter, must get on the baggage detail. Sophomores stay on the detail for the year. It helps build morale and gives the older players a lift.
Imagine, if you will, a coach demanding that a sportswriter with him on the airplane in today's world being ordered to help handle the baggage! Imagine if Coach Cal referred to his freshmen (note that freshmen were ineligible to play when Rupp wrote this) as "dead heads." No coach adopting such practices would last a week in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Another interesting contrast between Rupp and Calipari is revealed in Rupp's disdain for what the media, and other coaches, said about him. In fact, the first four paragraphs of his article are devoted to politely expressing that disdain, culminating in this:
To sit by and worry about criticism, which too often comes from the misinformed or from those incapable of passing judgment on an individual or problem, is a waste of time.
This was one of Rupp's greatest blind spots — his own hubris. Rupp thought very highly of himself and his ability (justifiably so), and that blinded him to misjudgments that eventually, brick by brick, built a wall of insularity about him. That is a big reason why Rupp was so poorly understood, and largely loathed, by the sports media, then and now.
Calipari, unlike Rupp, understands the media wolf better than any coach in the history of college basketball, and probably any sport ever. He knows that to keep the wolf from your door, you must feed it what it wants to eat. Keep it fat, and it won't eat you because it won't be hungry.
But Calipari does far more than just keep the beast happily replete — he forces the media to help carry his water and his message, and he does it gently, by persuasion, cajolery, and even coercion. Calipari is a master of the message and it's packaging, and if a bitter pill must be fed to the wolf, it is done so wrapped in a juicy bit of meat with crispy, tasty fat.
But Calipari's hubris, like Rupp's, is a potential problem. The difference between the two men is that Calipari understands this, and manages his hubris, at least to some degree, by having his assistants and "people" remind him of it. We see only occasional, brief flashes of it, and that's because he is far more introspective than Rupp ever was. He should also understand, but may not, that Rupp was a genius, a savant, at what he did, which is teach basketball. Calipari is not, and never will be, although he is justifiably reckoned quite competent. Calipari, rather, is more a great manager of talent than teacher of the game, but his true genius goes to marketing and media management, both areas in which Rupp was notably deficient. And even if he had the skill at public relations to be as deft as Calipari, Rupp was too sold on his own competence to concern himself with them as suggested above. Again, the times we live in has a great deal to do with that — media management is de rigueur in today's college basketball world, but it was not back then.
In the end, Calipari and Rupp are great coaches, but for different reasons. Their approaches were and are very different, and although much of that is informed by the times in which they lived, some if it is philosophical and fundamental. It just goes to illustrate, as if it really needed to be, that basketball, like life, has many routes to success. Adolph Rupp understood this well, and so does John Calipari.