Even before becoming head coach at Kentucky, John Calipari was regarded as one of the best coaches in college basketball after leading both UMass and Memphis to Final Four appearances.
However, Kentucky is where Calipari has truly blossomed. Since becoming head coach of the Cats, he has become not just one of the best in the game today, but a legend, appearing in four Final Fours, winning a National Championship, being inducted into the basketball hall of fame, and earning himself a 30 For 30 film on ESPN.
Recruiting has been by far the largest factor to Calipari's success. While at Kentucky, he has become one of the greatest recruiters of all-time, if not the greatest. He has recruited 30 five-star players, he's pumped out multiple top-ranked recruiting classes, and not once at Kentucky has he had a single recruiting class that had fewer than two five-star recruits on it. Cal's recruiting ability has made him a top-tier coach, and has put him in the conversation with some of the greats.
But how does he do it? How does he manage to pull in so many top-rated recruits? Many people like to suggest that his success is thanks to paying players.
"What is: the University of Kentucky?" #JeopardySports pic.twitter.com/EYN7LSocky— Jeopardy! Sports (@JeopardySports) November 18, 2015
The jokes are fine and dandy, but Calipari actually uses some other methods.
It's all about the kids
If you have ever listened to Cal talk about coaching, then you know that he is all about putting his players in the best position to succeed in their future endeavors. Calipari wants championships and wins just like any other coach, but at the end of the day he wants these players to succeed in life more than anything else.
When he became a head coach at Kentucky, he was given a nationally recognized program with a storied history, and the tools to help any top prospect reach the next level. Recruits realize that, and that's why so many want to play for Cal. Playing for Calipari at Kentucky gives players the opportunity to play in the national spotlight, compete for the SEC Championship every single year, and, much more often than not, compete for a national title.
Calipari gives top recruits the chance to play in front of the whole nation, giving everyone a glimpse at what these players could do at the next level. Cal has even gone a step further in the past by holding workouts attended by NBA scouts, and having open practices televised on ESPN. He wants his players to have a chance to thrive at the next level, and his player-first mentality has worked out quite well.
During his time at Kentucky, Cal has coached 25 players that have been drafted into the NBA, and that doesn't include those going into the upcoming draft. Three of those players, Anthony Davis, John Wall, and Karl-Anthony Towns, have been drafted number one overall.
Calipari understands that each player's career is in his hands for at least one season, and he knows, just as well as the recruits do, that he can take them to the next level.
Elite players want to play on an elite team
The best players in the nation see big things for themselves. In high school, they see state championships. In college, they see national championships and Naismith awards. In the NBA, they see MVPs and Finals victories. Calipari assures some of the best players in the country that they are going to have a very good shot at their college dreams by managing to bring a bunch of those young stars together.
When Cal assembles a team of five-star recruits, they're good enough to win a national title that everyone knows they want. Add on the media attention that Kentucky basketball gets already, and there is no limit to what the players could do in college. If one or two five-star prospects commit to Kentucky, it's more likely that a few others will follow them with championship dreams, giving the Cats not just top young talent, but an overflow of top young talent.
I don't think you'll find another coach that has the phone numbers of Drake, LeBron James, and Jay-Z in their phone. Calipari knows some of the most influential people in today's pop culture, and whether recruits admit it or not, that makes a difference. Both Drake and Jay-Z have met with Kentucky players, Cal has been backstage at a Jay-Z concert, and the Kentucky coach even has LeBron's friends meet with recruits (nothing like being able to say, "hey, want to meet the most famous man in the sports world?").
But it isn't just Calipari's pop culture connections. It's the connections he has made just through coaching as well. You may remember when Calipari agreed to coach the Dominican Republic national team back in 2011. Cal's goal was to grow the game in the Dominican Republic, with the hope that it would be something like basketball's growth in popularity over in China in the past couple decades.
During his time coaching the Dominican team, Cal made a connection with a young man who would become a number one overall draft pick, Karl-Anthony Towns. It's quite likely that the time they spent together while Calipari coached him went a long way in deciding Towns' college plans.
The connections that Cal has made in coaching go far beyond Towns' recruitment, though. I mentioned earlier that Calipari has a massive pool of former players now playing in the NBA, and those connections with his former players give him even more recruiting power.
When he's recruiting, Calipari can call on the help of some of the most promising young players in the NBA, such as franchise centerpieces Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and John Wall. Cal can show recruits that at Kentucky, they have the chance to become the next star in the basketball world. Calipari has coached some of the best players in the NBA today, and managing to get them to Kentucky in the past makes it even easier for him to attract future basketball greats.
Calipari has also made Kentucky a pro factory during his time as head coach. As Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell has said, "[Calipari is] creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm." Cal's recruiting capabilities are unmatched by any other coach in college basketball today.
From his rare player-first mentality, to his pop-culture and NBA connections, to the advantage of being head coach of a historic program, no one is able to recruit like Calipari can. That's mostly because no other coach is like Coach Cal.
Calipari has cemented himself as one of the best coaches in college basketball thanks to his recruiting, and it doesn't seem like his recruiting success will stop any time soon.