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John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino: A Lesson in Program Duality

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The commitment of Trey Lyles to Kentucky reignited the debate of Players First vs. Louisville First, Cards Forever. But it's much more complicated than a couple of program slogans.


The college decision of Trey Lyles was a lesson in duality in respect to the philosophical approach to running a program of two titans of the college basketball world.

On one end of the spectrum, John Calipari has his "Players First" mantra in which he waxes poetic about preparing athletes for their NBA hoop dreams. His approach is to get the most talent available, bring them in and, in a few short months, get them to learn team defense, be selfless, and hone their game in order to be drafted to the pros.

Rick Pitino is at the opposite end of the spectrum. His mantra is "Louisville First, Cards Forever", which has been made popular by the #L1C4 twitter campaign. Rick's philosophy is to get players that will stick around the program for more than just one season in order to become better athletes, better students and better men. And if an extra result is the player being drafted to the NBA, then that is an added bonus.

But how much of this is actually true in respect to both programs? Individuals that want to illustrate this picture using broad strokes (commonly shock jocks on the radio and bloggers) paint Cal as a coach that sells his program to recruits by telling them that his way is a fast track to millions of dollars in the NBA. College doesn't matter, what matters is the all-mighty dollar, and he can get you there better than anyone else.

These same pretend Picassos paint Pitino as a guy that can no longer land the big fish, so he is forced to sell a disingenuous product that proclaims program loyalty, but cares little or nothing for the individual player. After all, look at the high number players that have transferred from the program in recent memory. Pitino seems to discard them without much afterthought.

But with anything in life, love and basketball, the duality is far more complicated than this, and broad strokes need to be replaced with multicolored and multifaceted points of view.

Calipari and Pitino have gone after the same players several times while each coach has been in the Commonwealth. Before we go any further, let's look at the tale of the tape:


  • Elisha Justice (2010) - Three star point guard from Pikeville, Kentucky. Elisha chose to walk on at Louisville over Kentucky. He now is the starting point guard for Pikeville College. Jarrod Polson wound up being the local walk on point guard for Kentucky that same season.
  • Marquis Teague (2011) -Five star point guard from Indianapolis, Indiana. Teague chose Kentucky over Louisville in a much publicized decision. Rick Pitino recruited Teague for years, coached Teague's father and even hired one of his AAU coaches to his staff. Calipari swooped in late and convinced Teague to become a Wildcat; a move that still ruffles Cardinal feathers to this very day. Teague went on to become a key part of the 2012 title team and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA draft.
  • Chane Behanan (2011) -Four star power forward from Bowling Green, Kentucky by way of Cincinnati, Ohio. Behanan held an offer from both schools but opted to play for the Cardinals. Many attributed his decision to John Calipari's heavy interest in Terrence Jones at the time. Jones first committed to Washington, leaving Cal without a highly ranked forward. But Jones later had a change of heart and became a Wildcat. Behanan has opted to stay in college and is in his third year as a Cardinal despite rumors that floated around about him being one and done or two and done; but despite the rumors he has remained with the program. Behanan has been a constant headache for Pitino and Louisville fans with multiple suspensions and a reoccurring case of Foot in Mouth Disease. Regardless of his troubles, he is a great talent that was a key contributor that led Louisville to a Final Four and a title.
  • Derek Wills (2013) -Three star power forward from Mount Washington, Kentucky. Willis is an interesting case as he was a lifelong Louisville fan but chose to play for Kentucky while having offers from both schools. His reasoning? He wanted a challenge as a player and he felt that playing with the elite talent at Kentucky would meet his expectations. He was part of another stellar recruiting class that Cal put together. But Willis hasn't been overwhelmed thus far. In fact, he has been much better than advertised and could be setting up as a multi-year talent for John Calipari.
  • Trey Lyes (2014) -Five star power forward from Indianapolis, Indiana. Trey was originally committed to Indiana but later reneged. He cut his list down to Louisville and Kentucky, two bitter adversaries, and played the rivalry card for all it is worth. Lyles stirred the pot by tweeting pictures of himself in a split jersey and making statements about the perceived differing philosophies between the two.

Kentucky gets players to the league faster, but Louisville might develop them just a little bit better," Lyles told Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports.

Lyles chose Kentucky on November 11th, citing that Kentucky was a better fit for the goals that he wants to accomplish.

Current Recruits Both Coaches are Pursuing:

  • Cliff Alexander (2014) -Five star power forward from Chicago, Illinois.
  • Myles Turner (2014)-Five star center from Euless, Texas.
  • Malik Newman (2015) -Five star guard from Jackson, Mississippi.
  • Stephen Zimmerman (2015) -Five star center from Las Vegas, Nevada.
  • Luke Kennard (2015) -Five star guard from Franklin, Ohio.

As you can see, both John Calipari and Rick Pitino go after the same type of player more often than many think. Calipari has gone head to head with Pitino over three star guys like Elisha Justice and Derke Willis, while Pitino has gone head to head with Cal over top tier playes such as Teague, Behanan and Lyles. More often than not, the higher rated talent goes to Kentucky, but Pitino pursues them all the same.

Coach P actually told Lyles that he wanted him to be his first one and done player at Louisville. He also told five star 2014 center Jalil Okafor the same thing when he was being recruited by Louisville: "He told my father he feels I'll be a different big man," Okafor said. "One-and-done is something he mentioned that I can do at any school. But he would like for me to do that at Louisville. If that was something I was interested in, he said that's something I could do there."

Louisville no longer remains on Okafor's list of schools. Kentucky is still in the mix for his services.

So, are Calipari's and Pitino's approach to recruiting actually that different? I don't think so, but I think the results they have with players are what set them apart, and thus funnel the one and done type kids more toward Kentucky.

I think when both coaches try to get a recruit they pitch hard work, no guaranteed playing time and a chance to reach the NBA. But I think the difference is that Calipari has done a lot more with getting kids into the pros in a short amount of time whereas Pitino's players tend to stick around longer.

I think the duality of the programs lies within the reality of what they have done more than it does a recruiting philosophy. Rick Pitino offers a lot of five star/one and done talent for a coach that professes program over individual success. But the fact remains that his players most often do not enter into the NBA until after three or four years in his program. The big myth that he only goes after recruits that he knows will stay longer than one season is just that, a myth. This is something that many Louisville fans tell themselves when he doesn't land a player (see reaction to Trey Lyles picking UK). Pitino wants that caliber of talent; he just doesn't get it with regularity.

And, in my humble opinion, I think that Calipari needs to focus a little more on getting players that are going to be in school longer than one or two seasons. This would be to his benefit, and I think he is going in that direction with players such as Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Tyler Ulis. Calipari is still going to go after the best of the best in the high school ranks, but it seems as if that trend might be slowing just a bit.

Obviously the respective approaches that each coach takes works, as they have won back-to-back titles. When it comes down to it, a combination of coaching, player unity, and talent are the ingredients for a winning team; not just catch phrases, book titles or twitter slogans.