Kentucky Basketball: Calipari May Not Be #1 To ESPN, but He's The Best Coach for Kentucky

Jamie Squire

Billy Donovan is a great coach, but no coach fits a program like John Calipari fits Kentucky.

My SB Nation brother-in-arms, Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army, hypes Billy Donovan's selection as the best college basketball coach by ESPN recently. I don't blame him at all for doing that, and take no offense at his comments — all SB Nation communities should be passionate about their programs and coaches, and certainly Billy Donovan has been the best Florida has ever had.

I'd like to posit a question, but before we do that, let's assume for the sake of argument that Billy Donovan is, convincingly, the best coach in college basketball. Let's assume, even if we are unconvinced, that Donovan gets the most out of the players he recruits, more than any other coach, including John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski — all of them, just for the sake of argument.

Now, riddle me this: If you had the power, right now, to wave a magic wand and trade Coach Cal for Billy D., would you do it?

I'm not putting a poll up because non-Kentucky trolls would amuse themselves by answering this question "yes," so if you want to opine, do so in the comments.

My argument is that Calipari is the best fit of any coach for any program, including all the aforementioned — only Krzyzewski at Duke is comparable. The proof of that is the combination of Calipari and Kentucky has led the Wildcats to a sustained run of success that shows no signs of abating. This is not to disparage the fantastic job any of the aforementioned coaches, including Donovan, have done at their respective schools. Donovan is a great fit for Florida's program and his success there speaks for itself. I'll even cop to the idea that for him to have done what he has done in Gainesville with as little historical basketball tradition as the Gators have speaks even more dramatically to his acumen and ability.

But John Calipari and Kentucky have been magic together. Not only has Kentucky been on a five-year run that rivals any in history for a school not named UCLA, Calipari's connection with the Big Blue Nation has been magical. No coach in America has produced as much enthusiasm and fan support for a basketball program while at the same time producing team after team that competes for the national championship. I said when Tubby Smith left that all I really wanted was for Kentucky to be an annual competitor for the NCAA Tournament championship, and Coach Cal has brought that level of performance, and even more.  Consider what I wrote when Calipari was hired:

There is no real way to gage the impact of this hire -- it requires something like the Richter or Fujita scale to measure it. The aftershocks from Calipari's coming to UK will be felt for months, and has already eclipsed (if only temporarily) the Final Four itself. That's because things like this happen so incredibly rarely, and it is so momentous when the perfect coach meets the perfect program. The last such seismic event was the hiring of Roy Williams by North Carolina, and we saw what happened after that. This is virtually identical in every meaningful way with respect to its impact on college basketball, and I expect similar results.

Absolutely nothing about this has changed.  In fact, if anything, Calipari has exceeded my expectations, which were notably very high at the time.

Not only that, Calipari seems to be happier here than at any other place he has been. He has embraced the Big Blue Faithful like no other coach in history, even the legendary Adolph Rupp. He doesn't seem uncomfortable at all with the attention that Kentucky fans heap upon him, affectionately referring to the Big Blue Nation as "crazy," but also insisting he likes us that way.

This has been a five-year love affair unlike any coach-fan relationship probably in the history of college basketball. With all possible respect, due or otherwise to Billy Donovan, it is unlikely that he would either be as comfortable as Coach Cal is, or able to pull off the kind of relationship with Kentucky fans that Calipari does. I think coaching at UK would drive Donovan bats, and I strongly believe that's why he has resisted coming here when the job has been open. Florida fans probably prefer to think of it as loyalty, and for a fact, it could be — other jobs like Indiana and UCLA have come open, and Donovan has shown no interest in those, either.

But, whatever. My point here is that there is no coach who could've done here what Calipari as done taken as a whole. Could other coaches have won as much? Maybe, but no other coach currently extant could have captured the entirety of Kentucky basketball like Calipari has, and turned it into a winning machine. Of course, this forces us to ask what happens when he leaves? I don't know, but the combination of salesmanship, marketing savvy, and ability to connect with Kentuckian might not exist anywhere else in college coaching.

So let's enjoy him while we can, but one thing I am sure of — collectively, we wouldn't trade him for anybody, even The Baron himself if it were possible.

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