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Kentucky Basketball: Deus Ex Calipari

Toughest coach to replace?
Toughest coach to replace?

So now, according to this blog post by Dana O'Neil at ESPN, Kentucky coach John Calipari has been deified by the Big Blue Nation to the point that he would be almost impossible to replace. Aside from the slight absurdity of elevating Coach Cal to "legend" status after only his first national championship, O'Neil sees the matter thus:

If he were all puff and blather, this wouldn’t be difficult. Instead, in Calipari’s tenure, the Wildcats have gone from the Elite Eight to the Final Four to a national championship.

Who in his right mind wants to follow that?

I submit that many people would want to follow Calipari, or at least the opportunity to try. As difficult as the Kentucky job can be, it is equally rewarding when done well, as Coach Cal has amply demonstrated in his brief tenure here. Calipari's status among the Big Blue Nation is the natural consequence of a coach being wildly successful at a legendary program that has suffered a fairly substantial absence from NCAA tournament relevance.

It seems likely to me that much the same thing will happen to Tom Crean if he wins at Indiana, or to Ben Howland if he manages to return UCLA back to championship glory. Any school that has the basketball chops of Kentucky (and there are admittedly very few of them) would put their coach on a pedestal under such circumstances.

O'Neil is profoundly right about how well Calipari and Kentucky match up, but I don't think she really gets the Big Blue Nation as well as she thinks she does. Nobody, not even Coach Cal at the height of his persuasive, glad-handing and coaching powers, is bigger than Kentucky basketball. No coach is irreplaceable. The mighty Adolph Rupp was successfully replaced by his long-time assistant Joe B. Hall, and even though Hall's tenure had its ups and downs, there were people at the time who thought that Rupp could never be replaced. They were wrong.

To be fair to O'Neil, she isn't saying Cal cannot be replaced, just that it would be harder to do than anyplace else. I can't agree, especially considering the cult of personality that is Mike Krzyzewski. Duke has nothing like the record of success through the years that Kentucky has, and Krzyzewski is literally the Adolph Rupp of the Blue Devil program. O'Neil's colleague Myron Metcalf argues his case for Krzyzewski here.

One place that has spectacularly failed to replace their legendary coach is UCLA, where they have managed exactly one national title since the great John Wooden left the job in 1975. But even with that said, Westwood still remains among the most coveted coaching destinations in the college basketball world, and the Bruins could return to the top very quickly under the right guidance. I'm just not convinced Howland is the guy to guide them there.

I suspect that Duke will successfully replace Coach K when the time comes, and I believe that program is now storied enough that it transcends their coach as well, although unlike at Kentucky, that theory has not yet been tested. For good or ill (from a Blue Devil perspective), it will be fairly soon. Will they go the way of UCLA, or will they be more like Kentucky?

I am not as sanguine about the Connecticut Huskies. They are not quite up to the level of Duke or Kentucky at this point, and Andy Katz argues that Jim Calhoun deserves the title of "Toughest to replace." Frankly, think that an equally strong case can be made for Calhoun as for Krzyzewski. The difference, really, is in national relevance -- despite all its success under Calhoun, UConn is still not on the level of Duke, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina or UCLA. I would place UConn in the same category as Louisville Cardinals, a cut below the legendary programs. Call them an aspiring legend.

Unlike at Duke, I am not sure that the Connecticut program has the strength to survive a UCLA-like stretch of irrelevance without suffering some damage. But even if that happens, it would remain a sleeping powerhouse that the right combination of savvy and coaching talent could revive. The other thing, and Katz mentions this, is their uncertain future in the Big East. That could make replacing Calhoun the single most important decision in college basketball, all things considered, when it eventually happens.

Kentucky has successfully replaced transcendent coaches twice -- Adolph Rupp and Rick Pitino. I know, considering Pitino's current status as Louisville coach, that some may be offended at my choice of "transcendent" to describe him, but there's really no doubt he was, especially given the circumstances under which he assumed charge of the program. Perhaps no other college basketball coach in history has faced such a daunting challenge and succeeded so completely.

Will replacing Calipari be hard? Of course it will. Will it require more than one try? Maybe. At the end of the day, though, what Kentucky fans care about is a coach that can get them up to bat for the national championship every year, and eventually win one or two. There are plenty of coaches out there who have the skill to do that, and Tubby Smith and Joe B. Hall proved that you can do it without the charisma of a Calipari, Pitino or Rupp, even if their tenures were rockier than their predecessors.

I would agree that replacing all that Calipari brings to the table might be well-nigh impossible. There is nobody obviously out there who has the combination of people and coaching skills that Calipari has, not to mention marketing and recruiting. Seeing him at the head of the UK program right now is truly a time to remember, because fits like this come along fairly rarely.

In the end, though, while there is no doubt doubt that charisma really helps, the bottom line here at Kentucky is success, not style. Style is optional, but it's sure nice to have.