You may have your Bill Belichick and another Super Bowl, you may salute Mike Krzyzewski and his one thousand college basketball wins or you may even worship at the altar of Joe Maddon, who’s the latest savior ballyhooed to lead the Cubs to heaven above. Forget them all. In the here and now, there is only one coach who stands tallest.
He owns only one national championship, and in fact, that’s half as many Final Four teams of his as have been disqualified… once for the high crime of cheating on the SAT’s and once for the misdemeanor of taking early money from an agent; he was pretty much a bust as an NBA coach, and a great many people believe he’s defiled the sacrament of college basketball by his canny tactics. Nevermind. John Calipari of Kentucky must be sharper than them all.
Let us ponder what he has done. First, when the NBA dictated that an American player could not be drafted until he’d spent a year out of high school, it was Calipari who was savvy enough to hop on the train. It was most comparable not to what some other coach has done but to well, yes, George Steinbrenner, who caught on right away when free agency rules in baseball changed. And Steinbrenner had money. Calipari only a silver tongue and a Kentucky legacy.
While most other coaches were leery about recruiting pro prospects who would only be around as freshmen, Calipari actively courted them. Last year he even made the championship game by starting five freshmen. He’s been castigated for this strategy, but it is not he, but the NBA that has distorted the college game.
Critics of Calipari invariably dismiss him as a mere recruiter who can’t coach. Well, forget X’s and O’s — to take five freshman and mold them, lead them to the title game — that has got to be psychological legerdemain. This year, Calipari has nine NBA prospects, all high-school hot shots, and somehow he’s convinced them to be happy being platooned. No Wildcat has averaged more than 26 minutes or 11 points a game. In a young man’s world, this is the equivalent of taming Justin Bieber of his ego.
Moreover, high-scoring recruits from across the land are anxious to get on board, learn to play as a team. Kentucky’s recruiting class for next year is already considered tops. And get this: Some 6’9″ kid from New Zealand — New Zealand! — the son of champion woodchoppers, whatever they are, has already committed for the next year.
The current Wildcats have the chance to be the first undefeated championship team in 39 years, since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers won. That was a different world. Two seniors and a junior led Indiana. There’s no sense in even making comparisons to those teams of yore. Their kind is gone, and whether you approve of his savvy or not, John Calipari is the coach for today.