CRAWFORD | Kentucky's Calipari is the man for this moment - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Kentucky's Calipari is the man for this moment

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AP photo. AP photo.
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) — This was said by a great coach, talking about a great coach. I want to leave the names out of it, and see who you think it applies to. It concerns a guy who had overwhelming talent, and managed it well to win on a large scale.

“He was able to adapt and coach great talent and get them to play as one for a long time,” the coach said. “No one has done that to that level.”

Adapt, coach great talent, get them to play as one.

Who in college basketball today fits that description better than John Calipari?

The University of Kentucky basketball coach comes to the Final Four with an unbeaten team as the man for the moment this weekend in Indianapolis.

He didn't invent the “one and done” phenomenon in college basketball. He doesn't endorse it. But he did accept it. And he was way out in front understanding the sea change in culture that has led to what could well be UK's perfect storm.

That ability to foresee trends and get out in front of them is the mark of a Hall of Fame coach. Adolph Rupp did it in numerous ways, from his practice planning to the way he handled his team on the road to his use of the fast break. Rick Pitino did it with use of video in scouting the college game and by embracing the three-point shot in a way some of his more established peers did not.

And Calipari has done it in his advocacy for players, in his building of a Kentucky brand that caters to high-end college players looking to move to the NBA, and in his embracing of “the new normal” in college sports.

Calipari didn't make any of it happen. He didn't orchestrate any of the societal and sports changes that brought about the atmosphere he has ridden more adeptly than his peers. But he does understand it, and embraced it when much of college basketball was still scratching his head over what to do about it. A marketing guru, he embraced social media, he branded his "Players First" philosophy, he has repeatedly rebranded his ideas as the mainstream has considered them.

A question asked during a joint press conference with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan on Thursday was illustrative of this. Calipari not only has changed the way college basketball looks at elite talent, he has changed the lexicon — or at least tried to. This year, his goal is to couch the talent of his young players in terms of genius in other fields.

“It's changed,” Calipari said. “It's changed for all of us. It's changed from Internet to draft lists to the gazillions in the NBA. It's all that stuff that's made this different, our jobs different. I will tell you, we have universities here around this country, some of the top, that encourage genius, kids to move on and do their things if they stayed one or two years. As a matter of fact, they'll invest in them financially and tell them, If it doesn't go, you can come back and your position will always be there. I don't understand why it's a problem if it's the same with basketball players.

“These kids have a genius. Our jobs are to help them grow on and off the court, to help them become better men, to be prepared for society, yet they're chasing a dream and they have a genius. Their genius isn't just athleticism or size. There's no way you can be special at this sport unless you have the right kind of mind.”

There was a time Calipari's views were seen as revolutionary. But college basketball is moving more his direction, not the other way around. With the best coaches in the game given the same podium on Thursday, he got far more agreement than disagreement.

“It's just a different era,” he said. “We're dealing with things in a different way. You just have to, we all are. Whether me or Bo, if Bo has a guy after a year, Bo is going to tell him to go for it if he's a lottery pick. We're all in the same thing. You don't know when you recruit a kid if he's going to leave after a year. You don't know. You just coach them, then they make a decision what they want to do. We just try to make sure we make this about the kids. The reason things are different, 20 years ago NBA contracts were $125,000. Now if you're a top-10 pick, it's $25 million. Your next contract may be $8o million. That's $100 million. You have to respect that. You have to respect these kids' genius. You have to develop young people.”

On the day the NCAA announced its decision to vacate Calipari's 2008 wins at Memphis and wipe that team's Final Four appearance from the record books in 2009, I wrote, in The Courier-Journal, “While those Massachusetts and Memphis mirages loom large in today's headlines, it's at UK where Calipari's legacy will finally rest. If he wins big and makes it stick, those black marks will recede to footnotes. If he builds another facade for the NCAA to tear down, he'll be the footnote.”

That was written six years ago, not yesterday. Fast forward. Today, with an undefeated team rolling into Indianapolis, it appears the Calipari headlines are today's success, not yesterday's controversies.

He's a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He's a member of the board of directors of the National Basketball Coaches' Association. Increasingly, Calipari is not viewed as the maverick coach getting underdog programs into the Final Four, but as the Kentucky coach trying to drag the NCAA into new realities involving its big-money existence.

“I think it's taken the NCAA 30 to 40 years, but they're beginning to change now,” Calipari said. “I mean, right now we brought parents to the Final Four for the first time. My opinion, which I don't give very often, I keep my opinions to myself, but in this case I'll tell you. My opinion is the parents should come to every round. Why should the parents only come to the final round? What about the other 64 teams that played in this, why wouldn't their parents enjoy being with them? We changed the food policy. We now can feed our kids. We're not going to try to make them fat. You won't believe this, we're not going to try to feed them too much, but we're going to feed them and we'll make it as healthy as we can because that's what we're doing. I think what we're doing with the stipends, I think we have to move to paying for their insurance. These kids have to pay their own disability insurance. It encourages them to leave early. Would you want a $100,000 debt to pay back? We should pay that. . . . 

“I think the NCAA is moving in the right direction they need to move. It's a slow-moving boat. But for 40 years, This is the way it is, we're not changing. Now they've been forced to move in the direction of these young people. I think they've done a pretty good job here over the last year.”

If any coach ever matched the moment he's coaching — and the place he's coaching — it's Calipari.

That quote at the beginning of my column, incidentally, is a quote from Mike Krzyzewski. And he was talking about John Wooden.

Calipari has managed to adapt and coach great talent and get them to play as one.

How long will he choose — or be able — to do it? That's up to him.

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