If you read my last article on the state of Kentucky’s basketball program you know that there are many complex issues swirling around the program. (If you missed it you can catch it here. https://www.yoursportsedge.com/2021/01/17/are-storm-clouds-brewing-for-kentucky-basketball/)
Everything from fan dissatisfaction with political protests to on the floor play that is the worst UK fans have ever seen to a coach’s unwillingness to play certain players because it appears they don’t fit into a bigger agenda that he may have for this team. But throughout this two part series please keep one thing in mind — I don’t think John Calipari’s job is in jeopardy. I believe that he will be allowed to coach at Kentucky as long as he wants. After all, he has a lifetime contract.
Here is what I think is happening at UK and what I think will occur after this horror of a season has ended. First, and foremost, is that this current Kentucky program is at a crossroads and a couple of quotes from the past may help explain where this Wildcat basketball program is headed.
The first one was from an interview a couple of years ago when Calipari was asked how long he thought he would coach at UK. Here was his answer. “I remember asking Coach (Joe) Hall, ‘How long a run is this?’ And he said, ‘About 10 years,'” Calipari said. “The lifespan of a president, an athletic director, this level of coaching it’s usually about 10 years. After that stuff gets harder and harder.”
Keep in mind that Calipari is currently in his 12th season as Wildcat head coach. By Hall’s reckoning Calipari is now two years past his exit date and living on borrowed time.
The other quote kind of gives a hint as to what type meat grinder he has been through these last 12 years and the grinder seems to be grinding exceedingly fine this season.
“The thing that happens is that you still see yourself a certain way until you look in the mirror. Then you say, ‘What the hell happened there?'” Calipari said. “Everywhere I go I joke, ‘I want you to go look at the picture of me at the press conference when I first took the job and then look at me now and you’ll feel bad for what you’ve done to me. All you people.’ That was not that long ago. But this is one of those all-encompassing jobs.”
So it seems like what he is saying is the Kentucky job takes a tremendous physical and emotional toll on a head coach. I think fans are seeing the results of the constant pounding that occurs when a coach’s ideological philosophy changes over time but the job expectations do not.
This quote explains what I mean. “I literally don’t have to do this to win more games than so-and-so or more championships than so-and-so or legacy stuff. I’m not worried about that,” Calipari said.
What I think he means is that as he has aged he doesn’t value winning games as much as he values changing lives. He went on to say, “The biggest thing for me is the impact we can have for kids and their families,” Calipari said. “That will keep me going. If I ever get to a point where I’m not feeling that I’m having that kind of impact, that the program is not having that kind of impact, then that’s when you start thinking.”
And that folks, is where I think Calipari is today … thinking. He is thinking about how much longer he can take the physical toll this type season has created. He’s thinking about whether he still has free rein to coach the way he wants and create situations that allow select players to develop over time and, even though they might play poorly in their first season, they are still in a good position to make millions in the NBA draft. That appears to be the legacy John Calipari wants to leave at the University of Kentucky; not winning SEC Championships, not Final Four appearances and not National Championships.
No, he takes pride in putting guys into the NBA and financially changing their lives forever. He says as much when he said, “Let me say this: I’ve had 20-some lottery picks and every one of them has gotten to a second contract because they have been prepared to go in the league and do well.” And Calipari hangs his hat on that legacy and I believe when it gets too difficult for that to occur Calipari will move on to the next rodeo.
I believe the next rodeo might be the NBA. Here’s why. Calipari currently has 30 plus players on NBA rosters. Several NBA teams have multiple former Kentucky players on their rosters led by the New York Knicks with four. The Knicks also have former Kentucky coach and Calipari’s long time friend, Kenny Payne, as an assistant coach.
In an interview with ESPN in 2019 Calipari mentioned that he is constantly talking to NBA executives. He said, “So yeah, I talk to people at the end of every year. I’ve talked to NBA teams at the end of every year. And it may not be something that I have an interest in, it may be a relationship that I want to have because a lot times they’re drafting my kids.”
Former Calipari assistant Barry “Slice” Rohrssen confirmed in a previous interview in 2015 that Calipari is still considered to be an interesting possibility at some capacity in the NBA. He said, “My feelings are that he will always be in demand for an NBA job because he’s a players’ coach and he’s coached as many NBA players as there are out there now except he got them before they hit the NBA.”
Buzz Peterson, Assistant General Manager of the Charlotte Hornets confirmed Rohrssen’s evaluation that Calipari could have a spot in the NBA when he said, “Cal, he’s got a lot of influence, he’s been around,” Peterson said with a chuckle.
Now, since I’m not a mind reader, it’s possible that Calipari could stay at Kentucky for 10 more years but I doubt it. He has no ties to the area now, all his children live in other areas of the country. He had previously said he would stay at least long enough to coach his son Brad but he now plays for Detroit Mercy.
He has no more competitive mountains to climb; he said as much in the quote above. His main interest in this stage of his life seems to be more altruistic in nature. Not necessarily winning a lot of basketball games but more of a “who can I help, how can I help others achieve their goals in life?” And those are worthy goals but they don’t always fit together very well with a program that wants to win championships, a program that prides itself on being the winningest program in college basketball history.
Therein lies the problem, the crossroads that I mentioned earlier. Something has to give, the program has to go one direction or the other, and as Calipari watches more and more members of the Big Blue Nation reach a higher level of dissatisfaction he will have to make a difficult decision. Do I continue to swim up stream as the current gets stronger and I am getting physically weaker or do I realize that it’s been a good 12-year run and now it’s time to move on the the next adventure? I feel like he will choose the latter. But like I said, I’m not a mind reader, I just try to look at all the facts that I can gather and try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle.
To me it looks like the jigsaw puzzle is taking shape — a few pieces are still missing — but it looks very much like a picture of John Calipari riding off into the sunset headed for his next adventure. It may be after this year or maybe after next but in my opinion it is coming quickly.
And when it does Kentucky Basketball will be both richer and poorer for it. Hopefully it will be soon enough that Calipari can walk away feeling good about all he has accomplished in his time at Kentucky and the fan base will feel the same way.
— Keith Peel, Contributing Writer