I have followed John Calipari since 1994. I was ten. Being so young, I had not noticed coaches before; however, I was struck by Cal's bravura during UMass' colossal season-opening win over then-#1 Arkansas (104 points!). Twenty-one years later, I am elated that Cal is leading the UK program, delighted with the unmatched overall results he has produced, and earnestly believe that he remains the ideal man for the job.
Since 2009, each offseason has inevitably seen anti-Cal vitriol from the media. The legitimacy of the denigration has been challenged and even exposed as hypocritical on this blog's pages. Instead of rehashing that subject, I would like to address the criticism suddenly coming from a smallish assemblage of UK fans by reminding everyone of how incredible a coach and ambassador Cal is for UK. It was Cal himself who was referring to Big Blue Nation when he chided, "you people are crazy," and unfortunately, it has become evident that the only college basketball fan base with a faction that would ardently question its coach (who just won three 2015 Coach of the Year awards -- Naismith, AP, NABC) after a 38 win season and Final Four run would be the Big Blue Nation.
There are a select few individuals capable of coaching the University of Kentucky men's basketball team. I maintain that succeeding at the job requires accomplishment in six general areas. A coach who is well-versed in these aspects keeps everyone exultant -- the university, the program, the players, and the fans. Cal has reached the pinnacle of all of these elements over the past six years.
The Basketball Attributes (1-3)
The first is recruiting. Securing commitments from the best players equates to the best chance to win. If a coach at a choice program has an equal shot at a 5* prospect or a 4* prospect, and he wants to keep his job, he's going to focus on the 5*. Also, a UK coach needs to bring in high-character players.
Equally obvious is the second attribute, which is team success. I measure this characteristic in wins, conference success, and deep NCAA Tournament runs.
The last basketball attribute will make the traditionalists groan, but is unquestionably essential for a coach to succeed at a top school in the "one-and-done" age. It's the coach's ability to produce and develop NBA players. The ability covers both the preeminent 5*s who are expected to be drafted as well as the unheralded players who take longer to become pro-ready.
The Off-the-Court Must-Haves (4-6)
First is what I refer to as the public relations (PR) attribute. He must participate in different levels of charitable causes. He must be friendly, approachable, and realize that he wears his "Kentucky Coach Hat" twenty-four hours a day and must be willing to be "seen" and revel in the spotlight. UK's basketball coach is a national celebrity and he must be comfortable with that.
Secondly, off the court, the coach must be engaged with his players, and encourage (or require) them to participate in charitable and community outreach activities. The coach must be proficient at turning young men into productive citizens.
Finally, a UK coach must run a clean program. To realize success in this area, he must ensure that players avoid law enforcement contact and university honor code violations (which ostensibly blends with the aforementioned "high character player" aspect of recruiting) and must avoid NCAA violations and scandals.
Cal has ascended to the top of the game in these areas. To demonstrate as much, I have used numbers and compared Cal and UK to other coaches and programs where possible.
1. Calipari's Recruiting Record
Cal has attained recruiting brilliance at Kentucky. It is staggering to read about his run on the trail, which is detailed below. 247Sports, Rivals, Scout, and ESPN were consulted.
2009: Consensus #1 class
2010: Consensus #1
2011: Consensus #1
2012: #1 (Rivals and Scout); #2 elsewhere
2013: Consensus #1
2014: Consensus #2
2015: #1 (247Sports); #2 (Scout and ESPN); #3 (Rivals, which inexplicably still classifies Jamal Murray as a member of the 2016 class)
Overall (Seven Classes): 4 consensus #1 classes, 1 consensus #2 class, 2 classes ranked #1 by at least 1 recruiting service
No program can boast these consistent results since 2009. Duke comes close but had classes outside the top 10 in 2012 and 2013. North Carolina, Kansas, and Arizona have also had classes since 2009 that fell outside the top 10.
Also, Cal has shown an unparalleled ability to recruit top 25 players nationally. To illustrate his recruiting reach, consider these top 25-commits-by-state numbers, which include pledges to UK during Cal's tenure, as well as commitments to arguably his four most bitter recruiting rivals' programs:
UK/Calipari: 18 states; no commits from Kentucky; as far west as California and Oregon; Canada included
KU/Bill Self: 13 states; one Kansas commit; as far west as Nevada
Duke/Mike Krzyzewski: 9 states; several NC commits; fairly regional
UNC/Roy Williams: 5 states; relies heavily on NC talent; mostly regional
I did not include other legendary coaches whom I respect because they have not recently recruited or landed more than a few top 25 players, such as Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim or Rick Pitino. It is apparent that Cal's recruiting reach extends across the country like no other coach's.
Cal also recruits high-character kids. Brandon Knight and KAT, among many others. Since 2009, the only UK players involved with law enforcement while on a UK roster were Terrence Jones and Stacey Poole in 2011 (whose vehicle was hit early in the morning by a drunk driver driving on the wrong side of the road), though it ultimately became clear that they were only guilty of not obeying the "nothing good happens after midnight" rule. Cal subsequently instituted a curfew, which was respected and obeyed by the team.
2. UK Team Success Under Calipari
2009: 35-3 (14-2 SEC); SECT & Regular Season Champions; Elite 8
2010: 29-9 (10-6 SEC); SECT Champions; Final 4
2011: 38-2 (16-0 SEC); SEC Regular Season Champions; NCAA Champions
2012: 21-12 (12-6 SEC); NIT First Round
2013: 29-11 (12-6 SEC); National Runner-Up
2014: 38-1 (18-0 SEC); SECT & Regular Season Champions; Final 4
Overall (Six Seasons): 190-38 (.833); 82-20 (.804) SEC; 1 Championship; 1 Runner-Up; 2 Final 4s; 1 Elite 8; 1 NIT appearance
While winning games is fantastic, NCAA Tournament performance is commonly considered the most important aspect of team success. A glance at other powerhouse programs indicates that no school has matched UK's general NCAA Tournament performance in the context of deep runs during this span, even acknowledging the NIT year. Duke is close (2 first round exits as heavy favorites and 2 Sweet 16s bring down their pair of Championships), as is Michigan State (no Championships, 2 Sweet 16s, and a first round exit mar their otherwise impressive Tournament resume since 2009). Consider the specific negative aspects of Duke's and MSU's Tournament track records, and then recall that UK's worst Tournament performance was the Elite 8 in 2009.
In terms of games won, Cal at UK is also king, with 190. For comparison's sake, since 2009:
North Carolina: (156-64)
3. Calipari's Ability to Put Players into the NBA
Once again, Calipari is the best. Numbers, notable names, and lesser-known recruits sent to the NBA since 2009:
UK: 26 (Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall)
4* and under into NBA: 5 (4* WCS, Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, Eric Bledsoe; 3* Josh Harrellson)
Duke: 16 (Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker, Mason Plumlee)
4* and under into NBA: 4 (4* Nolan Smith, Lance Thomas, Miles Plumlee; 3* Seth Curry)
Kansas: 13 (Andrew Wiggins, Ben McLemore, Markieff Morris)
4* and under into NBA: 5 (4* Cole Aldrich, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, Tyshawn Taylor, Tarik Black)
North Carolina: 9 (Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Ed Davis)
4* and under into NBA: 3 (4* Tyler Zeller, J.P. Tokoto, Kendall Marshall)
Arizona: 7 (Chase Budinger, Derrick Williams, Aaron Gordon)
4* and under into NBA: (4* Solomon Hill, 3* Derrick Williams)
Cal is nearly 100% better than any other college basketball coach in getting players to the NBA since 2009. Further, he is at the forefront, among many big name coaches, in developing lesser-rated players into NBA material.
4. John Calipari, PR Expert
Nobody should be surprised to learn that Cal's major at Clarion University was marketing. Better writers than I have lauded his marketing and promotion skills. He has penned several popular books, including one New York Times Bestseller. He has trademarked one of his catch phrases. He worked with ESPN to get the 2012 All-Access television show produced. He also uses well-publicized relationships with the best basketball player and most popular rapper in the world, among others, to get publicity for and market UK. Cal is far and away superior to every other college basketball coach in adeptly using marketing as a tool for success.
Further, Cal is visible as a celebrity on a both a local and national level. He can be seen speaking at local Rotary Club meetings, as well as at a business conference in Lexington alongside Colin Powell. He has appeared at most, if not all, of the NBA Drafts since 2010 on, both supporting his former players and getting invaluable national TV face time with recruits. He can be seen on TV once or twice a year at primetime Pittsburgh Steeler games.
Finally, Cal's philanthropic and charitable side is renowned among college sports figures. Above all, Cal and his wife have their own Foundation. Current programs include financial literacy programs for Kentucky elementary school students and retrofitting homes for disabled veterans.
Cal's first oft-recognized charitable endeavor was his 2010 Hoops for Haiti effort to raise funds for victims of the Haiti earthquake. Cal raised approximately $1.5 million and received a phone call from the President. Cal also received national recognition for his Superstorm Sandy fundraising telethon, which resulted in a $1 million donation. Cal has worked with the Samaritan's Feet on a number of occasions, perhaps most notably last fall's Comedy Mania event at Rupp Arena (click here for more info on that event). Consider Cal's creation of the Alumni Charity basketball game, which raised $350,000 for charities across the Commonwealth in 2012. Even during a year that did not see an Alumni game (2014), Cal's Fantasy Basketball Experience generated $1 million for charities. Remember this pizza tweet from Cal in 2009? It resulted in a $50,000 donation to Kentucky Children's Hospital.
5. John Calipari, Molder of Young Men
Calipari’s UK recruits have received national attention for their volunteerism and charitable efforts during their tenures in Lexington. Consider last year’s team in the Bahamas, Marcus Lee many times over, WCS, WCS again, as well as players from several of the teams since 2009. And this is only a minute sampling of these types of activities performed by kids donning the blue and white, but it exemplifies what they come to stand for at UK and in their careers beyond college.
6. UK's Clean Record Under Cal's Watch
Since 2009, UK has avoided any type of significant scandal or NCAA violation, while other major college basketball programs have seen their share of these troubles.
There have been secondary violations, to be sure; however, perhaps the most significant secondary violation stemmed from the UK All-Access television specials on ESPN in the fall of 2012, which was unprecedented. In other words, no one was certain as to how NCAA rules would apply to such a media event. The short version of the story is that NCAA Bylaw 13.10.3 (page marked as "85") was violated because the Harrisons and James Young appeared on the series while still "prospective student-athletes." So there was no willful violation of a rule here and, furthermore, as many writers and administrators have begun to note, secondary violations are common in contemporary college athletics. A quick Google search reveals that major schools (such as Ohio State and Auburn) report twenty to thirty secondary violations per year. Cal, along with Sandy Bell's Compliance Department in the Craft Center, has run a clean men's basketball program at the University of Kentucky.
John Calipari has excelled in every one of the aforementioned areas, and all parties affiliated with the University of Kentucky are better off because of that. Considering what Cal has done over the last six years and what he is poised to do moving forward, he continues to be a perfect fit as the coach of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.