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Kentucky Basketball: What I Think, But Do Not Know, About John Calipari

I do not know if John Calipari is actually interested, despite his comments, in the Chicago Bulls job.

Many people have asked me my opinion on this, and I'll start out by saying that this is exactly that -- an opinion.  We all know what opinions are like, and that everyone has them.  My thoughts on this issue are no more valuable or inherently valid than anyone else's.  I have not spoken with Coach Cal, and he has not confided in me his feelings about the Bulls job, if any, or his intentions.  And even if he did, I would not be passing the information on without his express permission.

With all that said, I will tell you that I do not believe Calipari is interested in the Bulls job, and I don't believe the rumor that he ever was.  But first, a little background on college coaches in the NBA.

It is not impossible, or even particularly unlikely, that Calipari is actually interested in moving to the NBA.  We see it all the time, although we have seen the NBA raid the college coaching ranks less and less often due to the inescapable fact that college coaches have simply not been very successful in the NBA.  Rick Pitino left Kentucky at the height of his power after the Celtics gave him everything but ownership of the team.  He failed utterly, and the NBA kicked his ruin to the curb.  The same thing happened with Mike Montgomery, and of course, John Calipari himself.

Calipari has been there, done this, and written a book, Bounce Back, in which his travails after the New Jersey Nets fired him figure prominently.  Like Pitino before him, Coach Cal left the UMass Minutemen at the height of his success, and promptly went from one of his greatest achievements to arguably his greatest failure.  Billy Donovan nearly did the same thing in 2007, but backed out of a deal with the Miami Heat Orlando Magic shortly after signing the agreement.  Maybe Donovan would have succeeded.  Personally, I have my doubts.

None of these coaches, like so many NBA lifers, got an offer to coach another NBA team within a year or two.  They were outsiders, with the arguable exception of Pitino, and the NBA wasn't willing to give them another chance, at least not until the proved themselves to be committed to the NBA game.  When you come into the Association as an outsider, you get precious little time to prove yourself, and a cold shoulder if you fail.


But with all that said, there are a lot of reasons Calipari might consider the Chicago position, among them:

  • The free agency of LeBron James, a good friend of Calipari, and the fact that his former player Derrick Rose plays now for the Bulls.  When Pitino went to the Celtics, we saw him surround himself with friends and former players.
  • The Kentucky is a hard job.  Calipari has said this himself, and it will not get any easier until another banner hangs in Rupp Arena.  Personal appearances, press conferences, everything associated with the Kentucky head coaching position may be perfect for Calipari's personality, but it is still very hard on him.  That part of the job is a lot easier in the pros.
  • Mitch Barnhart is hard on coaches.  He was hard on Smith, hard on Gillispie, and is reportedly butting heads with Calipari.  I put less emphasis on this than some, because I chalk it up to Calipari being a dreamer.   Three or four games a year in Freedom Hall?  I'd love that, as a Louisvillian, but I can totally understand why Barnhart would balk.  This problem also exists in the pros, but to a somewhat lesser and more straightforward degree.
  • Getting good players to focus on their grades and not everything else is hard.  The GPA problems in his first semester at Kentucky, and the negative press that followed it, had to be unpleasant.  This problem doesn't exist in the pros -- all you have to do is keep your players out of jail, off the juice, and winning games.
  • Money.  Chicago could pay Calipari more than Kentucky.  Phil Jackson reportedly makes around $12 million a year, but most NBA coaches make under $5 million annually with a significant number making less than Calipari does now.  Chicago has burned through eight coaches in the ten years since Phil Jackson left, and still has salary baggage left over from the Scott Skiles period.  But they can offer him more money than UK, no question.
  • Hubris.  It is possible, although I have never heard Calipari imply it was a dream of his, that he may want to go back and prove himself at the NBA level.  Leaving after only one year at Kentucky with LeBron on the market might be just the kind of opportunity that will never again present itself.
  • Time.  Coach Cal has intimated that doesn't want to coach forever.  He may feel that his only chance at a great NBA run is slipping away, so if it is part of his dreams, there may be no better time than now.
  • If he is going to move, now would be a good time before his family really has a chance to settle in Kentucky.  Also, his family may not like the Bluegrass.  Joanne Pitino's love of the northeast was said to be a major factor in Pitino's decision to leave.

Of course, there is a yang to this yin.  Calipari has some very good reasons to stay at Kentucky:

  • It is the pinnacle of the college game.  If challenge is what drives Calipari, getting Kentucky back to the top is one of the greatest, although it is debatable if it would be greater to get Kentucky back to the NCAA championship than to get the Bulls back to the NBA championship.
  • Calipari professes to love the challenge of coaching at Kentucky.  If challenge is what he loves, there is arguably no greater challenge anywhere, even in Chicago.
  • He will never be more loved anywhere.  Many Bulls fans find Calipari as reprehensible, fact-free as that judgment may be, as the most partisan and irrational Washington Huskies or Tennessee Volunteers fan.  His relationship with the Bulls fan base will only improve if he wins, a lot, right away.  They will not give him a few years like UK would.
  • He would ruin his college legacy if he left.  Leaving a place like Kentucky after only one year would turn everybody in the college game with the exception of UK haters against Calipari.  It would be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a betrayal of epic proportions.  Many might think Kentucky deserved it, but that would not translate into respect or love for Calipari.
  • The NBA is notoriously unforgiving, and Calipari has first hand experience with that.  His memory of the Nets years may be more painful and fresher in his mind than any of us believe.
  • His family may be tired of moving.  They just moved from Memphis, and perhaps his family is ready to settle down.  It isn't as if the Bulls job is likely to provide a financial windfall that he cannot rationally turn down, although that is possible.  And if recent history is an indicator, anything less than spectacular success in Chicago will be rewarded with a pink slip after only a very few years.

Overall, the biggest deterrent to Calipari would have to be his own conscience, which is probably why so many think that he is seriously considering leaving -- his detractors seem to thing he has no conscience to inform his decision.  But a look at Calipari's record does not reveal a Larry Brown-like nomad.  Calipari has moved only when a significantly better opportunity than the one he was in came up.  Moving from Memphis to Kentucky was unquestionably an upward move.  I think moving to the Bulls from UK is less so, although that judgment is highly subjective on my part and arguably rife with cognitive dissonance.

Now we can debate all day if the Bulls job, at this moment, represents a significantly better opportunity.  Even if it does, it doesn't appear to be so significant that accepting the job would be defensible from a Kentucky standpoint, as was the case with Rick Pitino taking over one of the NBA's legendary programs in his beloved northeast almost lock, stock and barrel.  For that reason, and for reasons relating to where I think Calipari sees himself in ten years, I do not think Calipari has more than  professional curiosity about the Chicago Bulls position. 

Yes, it is possible that he is trying to send a message to somebody at UK about something, and if so, we are never likely to understand fully why or what that might be.  Myself, I don't believe he ever intimated interest in the Bulls, and that all these claims that he has are simply attempts to create news, and a buzz, around an interesting situation and a fascinating possibility that is actually very unlikely.

That's what I think.  Your mileage may vary.