Some Coaches Can. Some Coaches Con.

College towns are rarely associated with numerous nightlife options and tropical climates.  I’ve never been to Fayetteville, Arkansas, though I do know many who have, and the nicest word they can use to describe it is “quaint”.  I’ve also never been to Lexington, Kentucky, but, again, according to those who have, they contend that aside from game days it’s “kinda dull”.  So it’s clear that John Calipari isn’t changing SEC campuses to upgrade his social options.

But what’s even clearer is that on a night when real champions of the current men’s college game were being crowned–when his now former employers at the University of Kentucky were respectful enough to hold off on any public decision on whether or not they were going to heed the mounting cry of its supporters to cast him aside–Calipari found both an escape hatch and a willing cadre of well-heeled alumni to seize the news cycle.

At one time, Calipari was exactly what Kentucky needed–a storied program seeking a coach with a track record of overachieving at lesser schools like the University of Massachusetts and Memphis (State).  He found ways to attract an immense amount of young talent for what inevitably became short-term stays, effectively a turnstile that grudgingly conceded to the reality check that before the riches of the NBA awaited, at least one season of college ball needed to be played.  He did have an immensely successful track record that peaked in 2012 with a national title–their first since the 90s–and three other Final Four appearances.

But as NBC NEWS’ Greg Rosenstein reminds, his more recent track record had the Wildcats’ fan base clamoring for action:

Calipari, a three-time Naismith College Coach of the Year, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Kentucky lost to No. 14 seed Oakland in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament and has failed to reach the postseason’s second weekend since 2019. The Wildcats’ last SEC title was in 2020. 

Moreover, the ‘Cats conference track record has been lousy, with early eliminations in the SEC tournament as well.  Coach Cal is 2-7 this decade in the overall post-season.  His teams have made tournaments on the heels of regular season success; indeed, he won more than three-quarters of those games.  But when coaching is needed most–especially for a program where the regular season is a constant learning curve for talented players needing to get used to playing TOGETHER and strategically find a way to win against upper-crust competition, Calipari has been remarkably unsuccessful and, it would appear, aloof.

In stark contrast, the University of Connecticut and its basketball lifer leader Dan Hurley have found the secret sauce to both curate and mold talent when it counts most.  Last night they became only the second team this century to win back-to-back titles, with a convincing 75-60 conquest of a hungry and experienced Purdue squad.  It sure wasn’t the climate and the proximity to beautiful downtown Hartford that attracted players to the Huskies’ world, either.  But Hurley has embraced the challenge to build a team when it matters most, rising to the occasion when taking on schools that on paper look more formidable than the current iteration of the Big East offered up.

Calipari does have believers, many of whom have promised him boatloads of NIL cash to lure talent with him.  And as Rosenstein reminds, he did find a way to attract a fresh crop of talent to Lexington for next year: Kentucky currently boasts the No. 2 recruiting class in the 2024 class, according to 247Sports.

So I’m offering that Calipari was able to convince the famished Hog Nation donors that a package deal with that talent might be possible.  Billionaires like former chicken magnate John Tyson, purportedly personal friends with Calipari, Jerry Jones and the Walton family of Walmart apparently are salivating at the potential of turning around their struggling program by throwing money at the problem.

And a guy who knows this who was able to deliver a Razorbacks’ title has a cautionary tale for Calipari, as USA TODAY’s Josh Peter reminds:

Legendary Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson has some advice for John Calipari, who is set to leave Kentucky to take over the Razorbacks’ program.

“You got to stay ahead of the posse now,” said Richardson, who in 1994 led the Razorbacks to their only national championship in men’s basketball, “cause if you’re not saying ahead of the posse, they’re going to get you.”

Calipari did just that by escaping the ignominy of being let go, possibly as soon as later this week, and I suspect the braintrust at UK are especially thrilled because since he’s going elsewhere on his own volition, per USA TODAY’s Meghan L. Hall:

Calipari’s massive $33 million buyout made that decision (to pursue his dismissal) really tough for the school to make — until a new deal set them free.  On the surface, leaving under his own terms releases Kentucky from being required to pay his buyout.

And, natch, even as Hurley was cutting down the nets with his team, the Wildcat faithful were speculating that they could now throw millions at HIM to address their biggest need–a quality coach for today’s game that cares enough to mold talent.  That drumroll only mushroomed overnight as the likes of Alabama’s Nate Oats, who lost to Hurley in Saturday’s Final Four semi, declared he wasn’t up to the same cross-conference move that Calipari was.

Personally, I hope Hurley does take the opportunity if offered to him.  Kentucky has a tradition of college basketball dominance going back to the days of the legendary Adolph Rupp, a perfect landing spot for someone as steeped in the game as Hurley, whose brother Bobby starred for Duke and who will lead Arizona State into the Big Ten this fall and whose father was a legendary New Jersey high school coach and champion.  He’s done more than his fair share of restoring glory to Storrs, Connecticut.

As for Calipari and his, well, piggish backers?  Well, good luck.  You sow what you reap.


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