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Kentucky Wildcats: The Swagger And The Stagger

Everyone knows that Kentucky Basketball invented "Swagger". The bizarre thing is that now, Coach Cal and his latest version of the Cal's Kittens is giving new meaning to "Stagger", too.

This young man may not have invented "Swagger" but he sure knew how to use it.
This young man may not have invented "Swagger" but he sure knew how to use it.
Andy Lyons

Whippin' a referee after a Kentucky loss is permissible inside the boundaries of the Commonwealth, so long as you do it within 2 hours of the loss. Luckily for the "gentlemen" who officiated the Arkansas-Kentucky contest, they were in Arkansas. (Just had to get that off my chest)

At Kings Island, Ohio in the 1970's a wonderful thing happened. A theme park went up with not 1 but 2 great coasters. The names, while fairly mundane, were perfect for them. If you haven't been, the Red and Blue Racers were some very hot coasters in their day. They had speed, they had the "feel" of a great coaster because in those days, wood was still the mainstay of coaster building. A few years later, along came "The Beast" and the world went spiraling upward and onward and the next thing we knew, the days of the roller coaster were changed forever.

The world of Kentucky basketball has been somewhat like that. Since it's inception, Kentucky Basketball stuck with a simple formula: Be Better Than Anyone Else. The trick to that formula is that sometimes it's perception and sometimes it's reality. For decade after decade, Kentucky was the epitome of the term "Blueblood." In fact, until UCLA had their run with John Wooden, no one else dared lay claim to anything even close to that title. In some years, they really were better. In some years, they managed to fool a few people, and in some years, particularly a big portion of the 60's and early 70's, along with a few years scattered here and there, they just were not. And even when they were not at their best, the mighty Big Blue Nation would settle on not just Memorial Coliseum, or after that Rupp Arena, but most anywhere the Cats showed up to play. And they could intimidate their opponents; hello, "swagger!"

Up until Tubby Smith's departure from Kentucky, this formula worked. The wins kept piling up, the championships did too. Every coach, save the misguided and alcohol challenged Eddie Sutton, stuck another trophy or two in the case. If they were not Hall-of-Fame coaches when they arrived, they were when they left the Bluegrass for either a well-deserved rest, or what they perceived to be the next phase of their career. (It should be noted, that to date, only Rick Pitino has left UK and found success anywhere else to rival their accomplishments in Lexington)

After Tubby's final years, and then the well-documented depravity of Billy Clyde Gillespie followed him, the Kentucky faithful lost a little of that swagger. Numbers dipped slightly, and when they didn't, the enthusiasm that they brought with them to Rupp Arena and points beyond leveled off just a bit. People began to question if Kentucky still had what it took to "bring it" night after night. Fans even started pointing fingers at fans. Why doesn't the crowd at Rupp get loud and boisterous like they used to? Why does the Duke crowd at Cameron Indoor seem so much better than the E-Rupption Zone?

And then, Moses John Calipari arrived to lead the Big Blue Nation back to the land of milk and honey. He brought with him his own version of swagger, and his version had a twist to it. Calipari's team's show their swagger in a little bit different way. They are young, fresh, brave to a fault, prone to mistakes, and completely without fear. Usually. They are always good. No, actually, that is an understatement. They are always great. Great athletes, great personalities, great attitudes, and they carry the weight of great expectations. And without trying to sound like it's a boast, most of them handle it great, too.

The thing about greatness is, it's completely 100% relative to the five "W's." Who, what, when, where and why, can answer any question about young men of the caliber that John Calipari brings to UK. They bring immense talent, wonderful character, and truly humble attitudes for the most part when they arrive. And they show up because the Pied Piper of Lexington has called them with his wonderful tune. They are the best and the brightest out there and they come seeking glory and fame. And sometimes, they even bring the fame right along with them. But when the lights go on, the whistle blows, and they see the other team's jerseys, the swagger returns. Unfortunately, youth brings along the second part of this story, the "stagger".

The joke about two bulls standing on a hill overlooking a feed lot full of cows down below comes to mind. A young bull, full of fire and brimstone, is ready to plunge headlong into the crowd and stir up whatever he can. While the old bull, just casually, reminds them that there is no hurry. They are the only two bulls on the place. Of course any of you farmers or cattlemen out there know this is a fallacy. Every bull gets in a hurry for a cow. It's just who they are. Our nature takes over at some point and we all do what comes naturally.

What Coach Calipari has to do with his youngsters year after year is coach the youth out of them (at least in the basketball sense of the word) to the point that it does not get in the way of letting nature take over. And now you have our stagger. See, stagger is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it teaches us not to go in a certain direction. Sometimes it gives us a good sense of how to take on the unknown. And unfortunately, sometimes it hurts. It can leave our egos bruised, it can make us frustrated beyond belief, and a lot of the time, it is just plain ugly. The best part about the swagger is that it keeps us from dwelling on the stagger. But we have to know that with youth, you are going to have both.

The best example I can give you is a personal one. About a week ago, the wife and I learned that our eldest daughter, who is a senior this year in high school, is going to graduate from her alma mater not only a senior, but also a college sophomore. Her mother was pleased, and I was just ecstatic. I could not believe that in the last two years, she had managed to accomplish that feat; all the while still going to high school no less. I was beaming with pride and thought to myself that my daughter, whom I had chastised beyond measure at times over the last 18 years, was finally on her way. Her mother and I even discussed something that I did not think I would ever do, buying her a car for her graduation present.

I said that I would never do it because my parents didn't, and my kids were no better than I was. But I was so overwhelmed I thought that seeing how she had already accomplished such a feat, she deserved some sort of reward for not just making the grades to pass, but in carrying a 4.0 GPA all through her classes in both schools. Ah, the pride of a father who has seen his child make their first mark in the world. I could not have been happier to see a son take the court at Rupp wearing Kentucky blue and white, and surpassing the game high scoring mark for the Cats in their first outing. And then comes the stagger.

Yesterday, after I had bragged on her to everyone we knew, and a whole bunch of people I don't think I had ever met, I come home to find her in a battle of wills with my wife and acting like a spoiled three year old over something she knew was wrong and knew that would cost her dearly. In an ode to Coach Cal, I will not go into the sordid details about her wrongdoing, but suffice it to say, the car idea is over. The disrespecting of her mother alone would have been enough to give me pause, and I consider myself to be a fairly patient guy. But the subject of the battle just made me cringe. So I know his pain. I also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, she will overcome this and rise once again to the pinnacle of my enthusiasm, and show me that my faith in her is not only well-placed, but grounded in sound analytical reasoning. The logic is sound. Great students, for the most part, turn out to be great people. Or maybe great people turn out to be great students, the other way around. But great students, whose upbringing enforces structure, a balanced approach to life, and lessons in humility along the road to glory to go along with nurturing their dreams can accomplish much more than even they realize if they are led properly. That was patting myself on the back right there, wasn't it?

So accepting that we are now the home of both swagger and stagger should be something that we embrace. We not only embrace the fact that that we are still the home of the origination of college basketball royalty, but we are now the greatest place in the world for the best and brightest young men in the game to launch their careers. And we don't put you in the back seat of the car strapped into a booster. We hand you the keys, fill up the tank, and give you the Mercedes for your Saturday night date. Now, we know that occasionally we are going to witness you wreck a car. What we are going to teach you is how to minimize the damage to the car when the wreck happens.

Somewhere, somehow, you are gonna wreck that sucker. So if we know that, and we understand that we are going to see both sides of that coin, then we learn to manage it, just as the basketball team learns to manage it. And the best way they can do that is by learning that very thing -- how to be team. They are learning that if a log rolls down a hill, and it comes to a sapling in the grass, it can roll over that sapling. But when a log rolls down a hill, and it runs into a stand of saplings tightly formed together to protect each other and none way off out by themselves, they can stop that log which has rolled from the top of the hill dead in it's tracks. When that happens, the stagger falls on their opponent's shoulders. They can stand together and hold back anything. Nothing is impossible if they approach it as a team.

In Kentucky, we invented swagger, and now we own stagger, too! Rejoice! Big Blue Nation, because we just found another way to win.