John Calipari – Past, Present, Future – One and the Same?

Andy Lyons

Let me start by saying I am a fan of John Calipari. I remember seeing him at a Grizzlies game early in his tenure at Memphis and telling him I thought he was doing a good job. He had only NIT visits to his name, but I could sense he was bringing a level of excitement to the Pyramid (Memphis’ home prior to the Fedex Forum) not seen for many years. He was with his daughter and laughed saying "Tell her." I said that coaching young players had to be hard and given my love of college basketball, I appreciated what he was doing.

My wife – who knows nothing about sports – is also a fan of John Calipari for one simple reason. One New Year’s Eve, our family and another family (5 kids under 12 or so) had gone to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. It is not necessarily a nice restaurant but is none the less a Memphis Institution. As we were about to call it an early night, in walks the entire University of Memphis basketball team who sat at a table next to us. As we watched, my wife said "He is teaching those boys how to act." From which fork to use to how to serve themselves to making them take pictures with excited kids – he was teaching them how to act – not how to play basketball, but how to act. I am sure that phrase is loaded with all sorts of socio-economic political incorrectness but my wife did not see a coach, she saw a father.

So – no matter what I write from here on – remember where I started. Also, know what I write is my opinion. Sure I could probably pull some facts to support my conclusions, but in the end – as Glenn likes to say – your mileage may vary. Anyway, here are some thoughts – perhaps random, but hopefully worthwhile.

Cal’s first 3 years at UK were truly honeymoon years. Having watched Cal coach up close and/or with personal interest for 14 years, I can truly say that these 3 years were his best – at least for me. Certainly winning a NC was part of it – but taking his second team to the Final Four was pure joy. And as we look back at his first team and discuss who played on it, we will marvel that they did not win the NC – and unlike the team Dwayne Wade led Marquette beat, we don’t have an injury to blame the early exit on.

Some parts of the BBN are now saying Cal has changed in the last two years or that he needs to change his style. Sorry, but you have to take him the way he is. He has not changed – the chips have just not fallen the way we want. And yet, I would argue the last two years have been the second best period of watching him coach.

Memphis was successful, but there were much worse times in Memphis than having a team "expected" to go 40-0 facing 10+ losses and an 8+ seed…Even losing in the first round in the NIT is better than some of what went down here. Don’t get me wrong, watching Memphis go to the final game was pretty good, but let me throw out some things:

No UK player has gotten in trouble, serious trouble, with the law. We can all agree, Cal has recruited "good" kids. He has them going to class – even as they prepare for the NBA draft and guaranteed millions. At Memphis, he reinstated kids in a manner that we have all recently ridiculed our friends down I-64 for seeing at their school.

At Memphis, he often got commitments from high school seniors that everyone wanted but that jumped to the NBA (Amar'e Stoudemire is a prime example). The truth is, other coaches did not even try to recruit the kids because they knew the players would never go to college– but Cal was building a brand. It was such a pipe dream to get such commitments and never get to see them even one year in a Memphis uniform.

Yes, his teams got sanctioned at both Memphis and Massachusetts. I cannot speak to the Camby situation but I do believe Cal self-reported it – I just do. Also, at Memphis, I am convinced that what happened would not have happened if the U of M Athletic Department was as vigilant as UK’s AD (in Sandy Bell we trust? How many compliance officers go WITH the NCAA to investigate high school players?). The buck stops with Cal but, imo, he was the tail wagging the dog when it came to compliance – I simply do not see that happening at UK.

Free throws have ALWAYS been a problem for Cal’s teams. I have heard Cal use numerous (useless?) methods to improve FT shooting. One year, he simply told the U of M players to visualize making 10 FTs in a row before going to sleep each night. For a guy who grew up idolizing Kyle Macy, this "method" was the hardest to swallow.

My son and I attended the father son camp under BCG. I was talking to his assistants about how Cal ran practice back in Memphis. They just replied "that’s the NBA way." What they meant was that as the season went on, practices were shorter and less strenuous. BCG’s assistants chuckled at the thought….

One thing Cal has yet to do at UK is publicly throw a player under the bus. Perhaps he has changed, but he seems to also have recruited a better group of players that have not pushed him to that level. Optimistically, I would like to believe he would not do it again – even if a kid "deserves" it. He came close last year.

As to the media sound bites, I have heard them all before (actually, I remember thinking just last fall that he had a new one but it escapes me). My favorite is when asked what he thinks of Seth picking UK’s opponent and he replies "That does not bother me, Seth picked the Germans in World War II."

As to his courtside antics – I have heard people both in Memphis and Lexington complain that Cal has a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush. Ironically, his replacement at Memphis has been criticized for not cussing. One Memphis sports writer openly asked if Josh Pastner could successfully get through to his players without cussing (I would like to think it was sarcasm). Interestingly, Josh recently suspended a player for the language he used on the court – language? Yes, language.

And yes, Coach Cal yells at his players during games in ways that make us all uncomfortable at times. In my opinion, it was worse at Memphis. Please take my word on it…That does not excuse it, but that is part of Cal. Those trying to say the last two years have caused him to change are wrong. The anomaly is not now but the first 3 years at UK.

Some may ask how a man that acts so crazy on the sidelines can be any good as a coach and/or person. I wonder if he is that intense how can he take time to have his kids learn about black history month, wash feet, raise funds for Haiti, visit sick kids in the hospital and on and on…I mean the good acts has to be for show, right? I say no its not. It’s just as much a part of Coach Cal as bad FT shooting….

Not sure where I am going with all these comments. I will say this: Cal truly loves his players and all that he does is more than just about basketball. I will never believe he is a great Xs and Os and in game coach – and I doubt he ever will be. Maybe that is what we want at UK, I don’t know. But I will say that I believe he is as good as or better than any coach at teaching kids about things other than basketball – even if it is just which fork to use.

To me, as long as Cal keeps doing what he is doing, the winning – both on the court and off it – will come. Some may say I don’t bleed blue enough, but if success as a coach/teacher takes a bit longer on the court than off it, that is fine with me….

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