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Kentucky Basketball: Everybody Knows John Calipari Is The Best Recruiter. But Why?

The commitment of Aaron and Andrew Harrison to Kentucky for the 2013 recruiting class massively reinforced John Calipari's reputation. How does he remain so successful?

Andy Lyons - Getty Images

Despite a long friendship, an apparel company, family proximity and several other disadvantages, Kentucky coach John Calipari persuaded Aaron and Andrew Harrison to opt for the Kentucky Wildcats over the Maryland Terrapins and SMU Mustangs, confounding and frustrating critics and friends alike.

Many baffled fans whose teams lose recruits to Kentucky, or who watch as other teams do so, often resort to accusations that Calipari is somehow cheating, paying players, using William Wesley (AKA "Worldwide Wes") as a runner, or some other illicit machination. This must be so, they argue -- nobody else has enjoyed success even close to what Calipari is currently having since the halcyon days of the John Wooden and Sam Gilbert for the UCLA Bruins.

Nobody, not even me, can tell Calipari's detractors that they are are wrong, because I have no idea about any sort of rulebreaking as a factual matter. As a matter of reason, however, it doesn't take Aristotle to understand that if such goings-on were actually happening, somebody would almost surely have found out, and exposed it by now. There is just too much interest on the part of sports reporters looking to earn their first Pulitzer prize by uncovering such illicit behavior in any coach, let alone the Moby Dick of the profession that Calipari has become.

It is also true that Calipari's success inevitably draws NCAA attention, not because they are particularly concerned about him, but because they always scrutinize high-profile recruits, particularly ones with "posses" and reputations for involvement with third parties. Calipari will still get involved with those players if he thinks they're a fit for UK, but it's always risky, requiring Kentucky to be very careful to dot all the "i"s and cross all the "t"s.

There are several real, tangible reasons that don't involve conspiracy theories of NCAA rulebreaking that make much more sense, if you really think about it. Calipari possesses a number of advantages that other coaches do not, and in combination, they make for a powerful argument to young high school players. Some of these factors he shares with many coaches, but none of them seem to have all of them, and very few even have most. Here's my perception of what these characteristics are:

  • Calipari believes in himself, and his ability. Self-confidence is something that is very hard to fake. Calipari doesn't try to convince you he does things the right way, he tells you so with complete assuredness. That has an impact on people, particularly young people, but also on their parents.
  • Despite that self-confidence, Calipari understands that the outward manifestation of that cannot be ostentations or self-glorifying. His favorite concept is "servant leadership," and he not only preaches it, he lives it, and he demands it of his players.
  • When Calipari meets you in the living room, he doesn't tell you what you want to hear. He tells you how the real world is. Recruits get told all the time by those around them how great they are, and how they're going to make their first NBA all-star team at 25, and so on.

    But deep down, most recruits worth having understand that basketball is a team sport, and to be great, you have to have help. To get that help, you have to help others. Servant leadership is really not all that difficult a concept when you look at it through the filter of team sports, and life is the ultimate team sport. Calipari tells them that greatness is earned, not given.
  • Coach Cal can back up all his talk with proven success. Calipari has often told us on his show and elsewhere that "confidence is demonstrated performance," and nowhere is that more true than in his own life. When Calipari tells you he knows what it takes to succeed, he really does -- he has the scars, the awards, and the former players competing at the highest level to prove it.
  • The University of Kentucky is a big draw all by itself. UK basketball is kind of like a really fast sports car. It can beat every other car on the road, but only if it's driven correctly. When somebody sees a guy in a sports car, he thinks "fast." When he sees Helio Castronevez or Dario Franchitti behind the wheel of a sports car, he thinks, "Winner." When Coach Cal walks up to a recruit as UK basketball coach, that recruit thinks "winner," too.
  • Today's recruits want to get to the NBA as fast as possible, and Calipari makes that happen. We all know that is a big part of his charm. Other coaches have made that happen as well, but at nowhere near Calipari's level, and frequency, of success.
  • Calipari was an early adopter of social media, and uses it to full effect. He befriends stars in pop culture and sports that basketball players admire, and that gives him even more panache. When was the last time you saw Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski at a Jay-Z concert, or hanging out with LeBron James?

    But Calipari doesn't just use these guys, he genuinely likes them and wants to be around them -- after all, they're winners like he is. As a social animal, Coach Cal has learned the value not just of networking with pop culture icons, other coaches, and other important people, but of learning who they are and what they care about. By doing so, he not only enriches his life, he creates a value-add in recruiting.
  • He puts players first. He puts their success ahead of his own, and he makes absolutely sure that everyone, especially recruits, know it.
  • Calipari doesn't settle. If a player is talented, but won't fit into his philosophy, he does not recruit him and will not offer him a scholarship. Most coaches simply do not have that luxury, and it is self-perpetuating in its power.
  • Coach Cal relentlessly promotes the Kentucky program, and what its results are, but he understands that if you don't want UK, he's not going to convince you. If the interest isn't mutual, then he doesn't try to change your mind, and if you need to be kowtowed to, Calipari will take a pass. UK isn't for everybody, and he tells that to every player he recruits. The difference between Calipari and most coaches is, he means exactly that.
  • Calipari genuinely believes in the power of dreams, and gets a kick out of helping others reach theirs. That's the driving emotion behind his famous, and often reviled quote that the 2010 NBA Draft was "greatest day" in Kentucky history.

John Calipari is recruiting players in a way that has not been seen in decades. There are all kinds of ways to do it, but he has found a formula that includes a bewildering, but perfectly reasonable diversity of techniques and outlets for his personality that make the University of Kentucky an almost irresistible destination for the best of the best.

Many dislike him, but almost none of those who do have actually met him in person. His reputation has been tarnished exclusively by the actions of others beyond his control. Despite that, he has become the most dominant and effective college basketball recruiter since the days of Adolph Rupp or John Wooden, and there is no sign that it will come to an end anytime soon.

Coach Cal is a man on a mission. Can anyone duplicate his success using his formula, or some derivative thereof, or even their own novel theory? I really don't know. What I do know is that nobody is doing it right now.