clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kentucky Basketball: John Calipari's Recruiting Secret, and Why Nobody Will Believe It

John Calipari's friendship and association with sports power broker William Wesley is now legendary, and every time Wesley's name is invoked by anyone, Kentucky fans react strongly due to the negative impression many seem to have of Wesley.  Wesley keeps his business to himself, and many find that fact all the excuse they need to feel comfortable accusing him of doing something shady or lawless.

It shouldn't be that way.

Henry Abbott of ESPN's TrueHoop has long been on the trail of William Wesley.  His latest article reveals very little about Wesley that we did not already know, but it does bring a lot of known facts into a coherent and detailed story.  Abbott also leads us straight to some conclusions that nobody seems willing to draw.  This is an honest, working-man's article about an interesting character who prefers to remain behind the scenes, and you should read all of it.

But before you do, and before I am accused of "burying the lede," let's get to the point and go from there.  Many Kentucky fans, as well as fans of other schools friendly and unfriendly to UK, have wondered why John Calipari is so incredibly successful at recruiting.  Some have concluded that he is doing something against the rules.  Many conclude that it is because of his connections, including those with William Wesley.  Others think its just his natural charm and "gift of gab" or his NBA-friendly Dribble Drive Motion offense.

Obviously, charm and connections never hurt, and I am convinced Calipari does not break the rules.  But lots of college coaches have charm and connections -- Rick Pitino, Roy Williams (in a folksy sort of way) and Bill Self among others.  But among them, Calipari stands apart recently in his ability to woo high profile recruits.  How does he do it?

I will now reveal the secret of John Calipari's recruiting.  Remember, you heard it here first.  But before I continue, we need a little setup from Abbott's piece:

A common complaint about college coaches is that they lean hard on their best players to stay in school, even when it's not in the players' best interests. Think about the lengths college coaches go to in recruiting the best high-schoolers. Those players aren't nearly as helpful in raising a coach's profile as NBA-ready, NCAA-tested stars. It's hard to let those players go, and as a result, when players ask their coaches if they're ready for the NBA, it is distressingly common for them to be told "no."

Right here, in this paragraph, Abbott reveals the secret for all to see.  Calipari has developed, over the last eight or nine years, the reputation of being a man that players can trust to place their interests above his own, and by doing so, he serves his own interest.  The classic and undeniable win-win.

Calipari does not try to keep his players in college one minute longer than necessary.  He does not worry about it if he loses his whole team to the draft, he knows now that his reputation precedes him, and it will just lead to a reloading of talent.

When DeMarcus Cousins repeats the laugh line, "Coach Cal said that if I want to do what's best for him, and to put food on his family's table, I should stay in school, but if I want to do what's best for my family, I have to go to the NBA," he is condensing that trust down into one tiny, digestible sound bite.  If Cousins stayed, or Wall, or even Bledsoe, Kentucky would be among the favorites to win the national championship next year.

Cousins did not want to go, and undoubtedly would have stayed if Calipari had asked.  But Calipari not only didn't ask Cousins to stay, he told him, unequivocally, to enter the NBA draft and grasp his dream, for the sake of himself and his family.

Calipari's honesty with his players transcends his own ambition, and by doing so, he opens up a huge pipeline to other players with NBA aspirations.  Players no longer need William Wesley to tell them that Coach Calipari will deal fairly with them.  His reputation is already known, already understood. 

Why does everyone want to play for Coach Cal at Kentucky?  It isn't the dribble drive, or the panache of UK.  It isn't for the lazy Bluegrass summers or the excitement of playing in front of 25,000 every game in Rupp Arena.  It isn't the Craft Center or the wonderful dorms.  All those things are just icing on the cake.

They want to play for Calipari because they know that they will not be held back against their best interests to serve his ambition.  They know, from superstars before them, that Calipari will deal fairly with them and give them sound advice that they can count on.  They know that he will help them realize their dreams, not just by coaching them, but by not keeping them in college when they should be earning millions in the Association.

Those who think that a college education is the be-all and end-all of a young person's life will never be satisfied with guys like Calipari.  In many ways, he is acting in opposition to the University of Kentucky's professed mission -- to educate young people.  But in reality, he is providing many young men with the opportunity to play for one of the great college basketball programs in the country, and promising to give them good advice on their way to the next stop. 

Is education a secondary consideration to most of these kinds of budding stars?  Yes, it is.  But education does not guarantee success in life just like athletic skill does not.  It his the honing of minds, bodies, and skills that translate to the professional arena that provide opportunities for engineers, doctors, lawyers, musicians and yes, professional athletes.  To place one above the other in importance to the detriment of the student athlete is hubris, and worse, against their best interests.

Contrary to his critic's claims, Calipari is succeeding by being honest, not dishonest.  What's even more ironic is that both Calipari and William Wesley employ the same strategy -- they earn the trust of their clients/players, and keep that trust by placing their charge's interests before their own.  The reputation Coach Cal has earned, from Dajuan Wagner to John Wall, has made him one of the most desirable coaches for skilled recruits to play for in America.

His is a winning strategy, and a good life lesson for us all. 

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I ha lost my reputation, I ha lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial!  -- William Shakespeare