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Kentucky Basketball: The John Calipari-Mike Francesca Kerfuffle

John Calipari appeared on Mike Francesca's show and and a friendly, but heated argument ensued shortly after.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

No doubt by now you have heard about the humorous dust-up between Mike Francesca, an iconic sports talk show host out of New York, and John Calipari. If you haven’t, go to the link above and listen to it, it’s only about four or five minutes worth of stuff.

It seems that Francesca had Calipari in for an studio appearance. After he left, Francesca continued the discussion, asserting the oft-repeated meme that Calipari was a great recruiter and motivator, but essentially sucked at game management and “X’s and O’s.” Francesca didn’t use those words, and was very professional and polite in his dis of Calipari’s technical coaching, but it’s the same story we’ve heard over and over again here at A Sea of Blue.

Apparently, Calipari was listening in on his way to wherever he was going, probably well aware that Francesca would continue discussing him after he left. So in the middle of that discussion, called back in as “John from Kentucky” in a mocking of a Kentucky fan (and not a very good one), then immediately identifying himself as John Calipari. He then asked Francesca why he didn’t raise this point with him while he was there at the show rather than after he left, and proceeded to defend his coaching.

First of all, it’s okay for Francesca to have this opinion, but now I’m going to criticize him a little. What Francesca is doing is repeating what he’s heard for years about Calipari, not evaluating him on the basis of his actual ability. Francesca is not known as an expert on college basketball, I’d wager he’s never been to a Calipari practice or watched him ply his trade. He simply asserted something he’s heard a lot over the last several years as a fact, with no substantive quality to his commentary other than the position he occupies, which, perhaps unfairly, gives him an air of authority in the subject.

If this was Dick “Hoops” Weiss, the legendary former New York Daily News writer’s opinion on Calipari’s abilities, I’d take it much more seriously — Weiss is a famous basketball authority and his word on the subject has vastly more impact among those of us who style ourselves as knowledgeable on the subject. In other words, Weiss is an expert, and Francesca is not, and Weiss is a lot more complementary of Calipari’s coaching:

It is easy to undersell the amazing job Calipari has done resurrecting this team from the ashes because he brought in arguably the greatest recruiting class in modern-day history.

Poor X’s and O’s coaches don’t “resurrect” teams from underachievers to March Madness assassins — great coaches do that, coaches that are great in all aspects of the game. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a Calipari detractor, or a Louisville fan (redundant, I know, but it probably needed to be said).

The bottom line is that the qualification of Calipari’s technical ability is, and always was, a smear created out of malice and perpetrated out of ignorance and/or laziness, and that seems to be the case with Francesca. Is Calipari a little thin-skinned about that? Yes, he is, and I don’t blame him in the least. It is an unfair and objectively untrue observation designed to pigeonhole Calipari as a huckster in order to deny him the respect he has rightfully earned. As long as it exists, the “damning but” is always a part of any discussion of Coach Cal.

Having said all that, I am not asserting that John Calipari is the best technical basketball coach in America — that is unnecessary and difficult to quantify. But successful college coaches require much more than technical ability — after all, how many NCAA Tournament championships does Rick Majerus, Francesca’s example, have? Does Majerus have more trips to the finals, or to the Final Four? No.

My point is, the observation about Calipari’s technical ability, or lack thereof, does not belong in the discussion. Nobody talks about Rick Majerus’ lack of recruiting as a negative, nor Tom Izzo, nor Rick Pitino (at least when compared to Coach Cal). It’s completely unfair to single out a part of Calipari’s game and decline to do so when talking about other great coaches. Success at what Calipari and others do is an amalgam of things, not just technical knowledge, and contra his detractors, Calipari has plenty of that — way more than most of the basketball commentariat are willing to give him credit for, mostly because a perception created by Calipari critics has become accepted as wisdom rather than the smear as it was originally intended. Consider this piece from Rob Dauster at NBC:

Here’s the other part of it: the most talented team is going to win the majority of the time. Cal understands this. He doesn’t need to install a complicated offensive system or overload the already cluttered minds of the 18, 19 and 20-year old kids on his roster. He doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel when his guys are better.

He doesn’t have to run the Princeton offense when his team can get a good look off of a ball-screen or a down-screen. He doesn’t need a playbook with 40 different plays and three counters on each play when his team rebounds 41.9 percent of their own misses.

John Calipari is never going to be considered a great x’s-and-o’s coach. He’s not Pete Carril and he’s not Dick Bennett. He’s not John Beilein or Brad Stevens or Rick Majerus.

But he doesn’t need to be.

And it doesn’t mean he’s not a great coach.

This is so. Calipari coaches how he must to get the most out of the time he has with the players he recruits, which is arguably the least of any college basketball coach. His actual technical ability is never on display — he doesn’t have time to develop complicated offenses or ball-line defenses, and even if he did, they would be an unnecessary distraction. Great coaches do what they must to win, and Calipari does that better than anyone right now. To risk overstating the case, how many NCAA Tournament championships have Pete Carril and John Beilein won? I exclude Bennett and Stephens in fairness to their relative youth.

Some have made fun of the fact that Francesca hung up on Calipari, although the truth is, nobody knows who hung up first. It’s part of Francesca’s shtick to rude and abrupt — the New York area market seems to crave that kind of behavior for whatever reason, and Francesca is apparently famous for it.

Calipari got out of that conversation exactly what he wanted — a repudiation of the silly notion implicit in Francesca's comments that he’s some kind of master motivator and recruiter who knows just barely enough basketball to get by. That was the intent that originated the meme Francesca repeated, and the fact that it is now considered mainstream wisdom was exactly the impression Coach Cal intended to combat with his call-in.

Good for him.