LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Sometimes in this job, the press seating is good, sometimes it is bad. The very best seats are the ones close to the coaches. I sat not far behind John Calipari in both the 2011 national semifinal against Connecticut and the 2012 national championship game against Kansas.
On Saturday, my seat in Tennessee's Thompson-Bowling Arena was pretty good. If I'd been about eight feet closer, I could've qualified as a University of Kentucky manager.
I couldn't always hear the words Calipari was saying to his players during a 30-point blowout. But I could watch his interactions with both players and assistants.
What I saw was a guy who was trying just about everything -- yelling, screaming, smiling, joking, shame, praise, enthusiasm, detachment, calm explanation, vehement exhortation, and a few things I'm not sure how to describe. He knew nothing was going to work on this particular day, but it didn't stop him from using up his playbook.
Four times, I saw him put his head in his hands in an almost despairing stance. Sometimes he'd pat players on the back when they came to the bench. Other times he didn't acknowledge them. Once, he appeared to have a conversation with assistant Rod Strickland about a player who was two seats away and likely could hear everything.
Not having assistant John Robic, who doesn't get near the credit he deserves as a basketball strategist, didn't help. Robic was ejected in the first half. His presence wouldn't have stopped the blowout. But his absence didn't help.
When during a late timeout Calipari walked out of a huddle and sat alone on the team bench with the players huddled by themselves, immediately I heard via social media, "Nice. He quit on his team."
Wrong. He was still coaching. He'd tried everything else, and it was time to try a little silence.
At least once on the bench, he said to a player, "I can't coach you." And again after the game, he said, "We have a couple of guys who are basically not real coachable."
You need to remember something about all coaches. They aren't coming into the postgame news conference to level with you. Sometimes, they aren't going to say anything useful. Sometimes they're going to say self-serving things. But almost all the time, whatever they say is said for a reason, either for effect with the fan base, or for effect on players.
Calipari rolled into the press conference after Saturday's loss and was pleasant, and tried to answer questions thoughtfully. He's to be commended for that. It's not easy. Think about doing it yourself.
Today, Calipari followed up on his postgame comments. He did it via his own website, CoachCal.com. And not surprisingly, he walked back his "uncoachable" comments from the day before. Actually, he less walked away from them than explained them.
"I refuse to believe they aren't coachable," Calipari writes. "I refuse to believe (that) because we've got good kids. There has to be a reason why guys are walking out of timeouts and not doing what they are supposed to. I may say publicly they are 'uncoachable,' but I refuse to believe that because I believe in these guys and I believe they can change. I say it to get them to change, to prove to themselves and others that they can do this."
In other words, tell a guy he's uncoachable to see if he'll try to prove you wrong and do the thing you want him to do. Sometimes when coaches are critical of players, this is the goal. Call it a mind game. I can't say it isn't. And sometimes those do backfire. But John Calipari is in a situation where he has to try some different things.
It's always amusing when a team hits a trough stretch or takes a blowout loss to hear the number of people who want to write from home, out of vast experience of watching basketball on television, to say that this national championship coach or that one "isn't an x and o's coach" or "can't motivate" or any number of criticisms. These guys we cover in this state have won it all. Both eventually will be Hall of Famers. They do make mistakes, and wrong calls, and bad decisions, on occasion. They are not immune from criticism, nor should they be above it, or even second-guessing.
But they do know a little something about what they're doing.
With Calipari now, it's a situation he hasn't seen in a while. In one way Saturday, he almost seemed to embrace it before leaving the arena.
"I'm telling you, for all of us, for us as a staff, for these players, what a great experience we're going to have to go through," Calipari said. "Because you're really going to find out about yourself. Look it's been eight years since we (as a staff) have had something like this happen to us. Eight years. So, good, now, me as a coach, how are you going to deal with it? Are you going to quit on your guys or are you going to coach them? Are you going to make them better? Is it about you, or is it about them? If they're struggling how are you going to make it right? And today it was starting some different people. The other guys isn't deserve to start. They didn't bring it. SO I'm going to try whatever I can, and at the end of the day, let's see where this goes."
Calipari is 10 months removed from winning a national championship. He's been to back-to-back Final Fours and has had a three-plus year run like few coaches in modern history.
To suggest that he can't tap into players' minds and motivate elite level talent is laughable. His track record from DeMarcus Cousins to John Wall, DeAndre Liggins to Darius Miller, Terrence Jones to Marquis Teague, would suggest otherwise.
"This comes back to, you either take the fight to them or they take the fight to you," Calipari wrote on his website. "Historically my teams have always taken the fight to the other team. Our job now, as a coaching staff, is to get our guys to believe in that and do it again."
Just because you watch a guy from close range for a few hours during an embarrassing loss doesn't mean you know what he's about. But I saw a guy trying everything he knew to try, and I suspect that's likely to continue for as long as this season lasts, one way or another.
And if it turns out he has some guys who are uncoachable, it won't be because they haven't been coached.