I admit I was apprehensive when the University of Kentucky hired John Calipari as their head basketball coach.
Excited and apprehensive, that is. I was excited as I knew that Kentucky was getting a proven winner to head their program and there was not any doubt that the school's NCAA title drought would end. I was apprehensive as Calipari was ... John Calipari.
I did not pay much attention to Memphis and Calipari before he came to Kentucky. I had admiration for the way that he had built a winner, but being mostly uninformed, I, too was guilty of falling for the negative storm of conjecture and rumors that surrounded the guy.
Then I did what I assumed any Kentucky basketball fan would do. I researched the hell out of the guy. I was the managing editor of the Wildcat Blue Nation at the time, and I vetted and researched Calipari's history more thoroughly than I had ever studied for any of my classes at Kentucky. And my end result was that Calipari was a good guy who was poorly branded due to some suspicious circumstances and the healthy jealousy of fans of other programs.
Despite what looked to be a shady past, I was OK with Calipari's history and with his status as the face of the program that I loved. And eight years later, I still am more than happy with him and with the brand that he has established at Kentucky. With the family that he has built and the pride that he has reinstalled into college basketball's greatest program.
Throughout his time at Kentucky, we have seen other rivals, such as Louisville and North Carolina win as well. And while their winning stung and made me a little wistful that Calipari had converted his four Final Four appearances into more than one title, I was still thankful and appreciative that Calipari had not brought shame upon the program and was a coach I could be proud of.
It's not easy to do what Calipari has done, year in and year out. Kentucky is a program where player come to because they know it will get them to the NBA. And even with all the criticism of the "one and done factory" program that Calipari is accused of having, he has done an amazing job to turn model citizens out into the world.
It's not an easy job, and this is a struggle that Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain is having with his program and more specifically the case of Antonio Callaway.
David Whitley of the Orlando Sentinel had an editorial in which he highlighted the problems that Callaway has had and the struggles that McElwain has in dealing with players that only think about the NFL rather than school. And while reading it, I could not think about some of the things that critics of Calipari have said about how Kentucky is just an NBA training grounds for mercenary players that just care about for Kentucky for just one season.
While you read this, think about the things that certain critics have said about Kentucky and Calipari.
The real reason he’s in college is to pursue a degree in football and get to the NFL. And his skills are such that Florida is willing to put up with his behavior - to a point.
We don’t know what that point is, though it presumably exists. After each offense, coach Jim McElwain has toddled out like a wind-up toy and said Callaway needs to start flying right or there will be repercussions.
And there have been. Missing spring practice last year was a big deal. At least you’d think it was big enough to make Callaway realize he shouldn’t keep pushing his student-code-of-conduct luck.
Fool us once with Kendrick Williams, shame on you. Fool us twice with a credit-card scam, shame on us.
There’s actually a carnival of shame with this situation, which is hardly unique to Florida. The only innocents would be fans who say, “I’m not going to withdraw all my support until my school stops bringing in students based primarily on their 40-yard-dash times.”
Like Callaway, McElwain is simply playing a role in the system. If he doesn’t recruit studs like Callaway, he’ll be out of a job. So he manages to keep a straight face while saying the young man is learning life’s lessons and we should all be patient. At least until the Gators manage to find another big-play receiver.
It is easy to look at college basketball and see where a player that not really interested in college signed with a school because he had too and more often than not, turned into a much bigger distraction than it was ever worth.
Yet, I struggle to find a similar bad egg at Kentucky. You can say Daniel Orton was that type of player, but he was mostly minimized during his time in Lexington and was not allowed to affect the makeup of the team. Other players like Archie Goodwin may not have been a good fit in Lexington, but he kept himself out of trouble at school and did not disgrace the University as Callaway has done. I'm not really sure that Orton or Goodwin qualify as a major disruption. Certainly, not a headache like Callaway has become. Those were the two players that popped in my head, but in retrospect, they were not bad players or people. Just an ill mix in the program. And that happens,
No other coach will churn through NBA potential talent like Calipari, and no other coach is better at signing players that will be a good fit, either off or on the court. There have been a few incidents such as with Derek Willis' offseason adventures, but Willis more than willingly worked to make amends for his misdeeds.
I remember when some Kentucky fans wrung their hands over John Wall coming to Kentucky after he had a misdemeanor charge of breaking and entering and national websites worried about his character. John Wall became the face of the re-emergence of Kentucky basketball and is still an ambassador for the school today. Same with DeMarcus Cousins as Calipari has been the only coach that could get the production out of Boogie and keep him under control.
We remember players that Calipari was hot and heavy on the recruiting trail and seemed to lose interest in deep in the period. More often than not, we have seen that these players at their new schools would not have been the right mix for Kentucky and would have been disruptive.
I've said many times that Calipari is a great judge of not only talent but of character and this is not something that he gets enough credit for. Perhaps it is time that he starts to get more credit for that as well.