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Kentucky Basketball: Calipari Analyzed

In the latest explosion of "What does he mean by that?" analysis, an actually interesting article appears.

"Enemies?  Moi?  Naaaah."
"Enemies? Moi? Naaaah."
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

There has been much ado this week about John Calipari's comments made the other day after the UK victory over Ole Miss. The particular issue seems to be Calipari's need to create a meme every season that the national media is out to get him and his team, with vague allusions to the possibility of a conspiracy. Consider this quote:

Yeah, I told [Willie Cauley-Stein] to go back blonde. I said you play better blonde. But, no, he’s been practicing. Look, if you think he wants to play bad, he doesn’t. I said this after the game to the TV, this is the most overanalyzed team I’ve ever seen in the history of the game, at any level, in any sport. There is a weekly update on what we are and what we’re not.

Then they go to Synergy, and take out every play to show where we’ve ‑‑ I’ve never seen it. Our losses are worse than every other loss in the country. We lose, you’re not in the top 25.

That last is a direct reaction to the Gary Parrish tweet right after LSU that Kentucky was no longer in his top 25, a tweet I warned you about the day after the game.

Tyler Thompson over at KSR rounded up some comments from the national media regarding that statement, including some friends and detractors. I don't want to step on her hard work by reproducing it here, so go over there and read what she wrote for some context. Most of it is a predictable response to the general Calipari-ness of Coach Cal's statement, including some praise for Calipari's genius at manipulating the media, which is usually undeniable (but possibly also sometimes overstated) by all except his most virulent critics.

Which brings us to Jerry Tipton's commentary this morning. In an article entitled "Caliparinoia?", Tipton examines these kinds of comments from the viewpoint that Calipari wants to create antagonists (not so much "enemies," as Tipton avers) to fuel his passion, and his success:

The suggestion of shadowy forces trying to thwart his efforts is a common theme in Calipari's career. From Massachusetts, where he debuted as a head coach at age 29, through time with the New Jersey Nets, Memphis and now Kentucky, he's compiled an enemies list that would make Richard Nixon proud.


Even Calipari's friends say he's paranoid in the sense of perceiving many threats to his own and his teams' success.

"I always tell John this: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people are not out to get you," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a Calipari friend for decades. "John operates best when he feels people are out to get him. ... It's what drives him."

I think this is right, actually. What we are seeing is Calipari having a conversation with himself, and inviting the media to jump right on him. As Matt Norlander pointed out in the KSR article above, "Calipari is very intent with his words and when he chooses to say what he says." That's mostly right, in my opinion. Calipari rarely utters anything to the press that isn't intended for consumption and intended to invite analysis.

Tipton goes on to point out, citing quotes from many Calipari friends and peers, that Coach Cal wants to create an atmosphere of "us versus them." He relishes the conflict, it helps motivate him and his teams. It doesn't hurt that he has a lot of genuine backbiters who, for whatever reason, are fully invested in the idea that he has engaged in a lot of NCAA wrongdoing that they feel should have him banned from coaching, despite the fact that no objective evidence exists to support that position. This was embodied most recently by the "Candid coaches" poll that placed Calipari at the top of the list of perceived "cheaters" in college basketball.

In the final paragraph of Tipton's piece, there is this from Fran Fraschilla:

"John competes best when the world is against him," Fraschilla said. "In order to be competitive, you have to have a competitor to compete against, real or imagined."

I think this is absolutely right. All of us tend to compete best when there is an opponent to push back against that scares us, or makes us nervous. Human beings need opposition, real or imagined, to sharpen their competitive instincts and bring out the best in them. When you see a basketball team "play down" to the competition, what you are seeing is a team who doesn't think they have a worthy opponent. Kentucky's best games this season have been against their toughest opposition, teams that they came in fearing. Without fear, you don't compete hard. Without an opponent that gives you pause, you don't always give your best.

Calipari knows this, and he knows that in order to get the most out of his team, he has to get the most out of himself. Fueling the fire with adversaries, real or imagined, helps him accomplish that goal. I am tickled whenever Calipari does these sorts of tirades because it always draws a press and blogger reaction. Consider this from Card Chronicle:

John Clay laid out the full absurdity of Calipari's paranoia on Thursday.

Oops. John Clay thanks you, but now Jerry's mad. But further to a relevant point, Tipton's article did nothing of the sort. In fact, it painted Calipari's effort in a fairly neutral light, and I get the impression that Mike not only didn't trouble himself with the byline, but also the entire article.

Tim Sullivan at the C-J notes:

Thus while the thrust of Calipari’s comments after Tuesday’s 80-64 victory over Mississippi were essentially accurate, they also were short on accountability. Yes, opinions of UK’s play tend to oscillate on an almost bipolar basis. But Calipari has to bear some of the responsibility because he’s set the bar so high, both with his 40-0 talk and his stunning recruiting success.

I think this is also right. The fact that Calipari made his famous "40-0" statement on the heels of his best recruiting class ever give him precious little wiggle-room to complain about the media commentary surrounding the somewhat disappointing start that the Wildcats got off to this season. The plethora of media and blogger analysis of this team, particularly in the negative sense, is largely traceable back to this comment. Which makes us wonder if that comment was designed for just this purpose? Is Coach Cal really that smart, or ... Well, we may never know, but I think it's working out well for him.

In summary, even those of you who detest Jerry Tipton should read this article, because it is fine reporting — and not just because I happen to agree with him, but because for once, he keeps his curmudgeonly negativity on the sidelines and puts forth a good effort at balance. He points out some of Calipari's apparent overreaches, such as the alleged conspiracy theory about the E.W. Scripps company, as well as the understanding he gets from peers and others who know him. In reality, though, everyone, including the reporters Calipari had on his "enemies list," understand that this "paranoia" is really all about creating the necessary conflict for him to be at his best. Whether or not it's all cognitive and not emotionally driven is a question for another day, but you have to admit that if it's all just Calipari emoting, his emotions are finely-tuned to his own benefit — too finely-tuned to be coincidental, in my judgment.

I have no idea whether or not Calipari is actually paranoid, or if he uses apparent paranoia as a personal device to keep him operating at his best — to be fair, and not to take the "Calipari is a genius!" thing to absurd levels, it's probably a little of both, and a lot of neither. Whatever it is, it works for him, and as the old saying goes, if it isn't broke, don't fix it. Can you imagine a day when Calipari makes a statement like this and the media doesn't react to it?

Frankly, I hope that day never comes.