Opinion: Why John Calipari is the Biggest Problem in NCAA Basketball
By Daniel Enjamio
On March 15, Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari defeated Arkansas to win the SEC championship. Technically Kentucky won the game, but it’s only fair to give Calipari all the credit and attention since that’s what he wants, no, demands from us. The win, a modest fifteen point victory over a much inferior yet Top 20 team, kept Calipari’s vision of an undefeated season in tact, and continued to feed the notion that the 2015 Kentucky basketball team might be the best collection of talent college basketball has ever seen. But forget all the future lottery picks and potential future NBA all-stars for the Wildcats because, whether we like it or not, this is the John Calipari show. Despite the fact that he’s the coach of the undisputed best team in America, Calipari continues to represent everything that is wrong with college basketball, and is, therefore, the sport’s biggest problem.
Tomorrow night, the Kentucky Wildcats continue their march towards an undefeated season by playing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. They are two wins from another Final Four appearance for Calipari.
Before being hired by Kentucky, the best salesman in basketball led two other schools to the Final Four. Despite Calipari’s glaring run of success with Massachusetts and Memphis, athletic directors were openly hesitant to hire him. Why you ask? Calipari’s two prior coaching marriages ended in ugly divorce, as both those schools were hit with recruiting violations under his reign. That didn’t stop Kentucky, the same school that had passed up on Calipari three years prior because of his problems. Kentucky was desperate to win by any means, and the “kings” of college basketball felt the only way to assure this was to hire the sport’s greatest villain. They were immediately showered with prized recruits and future NBA players such as John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. The NCAA clearly doesn’t think those violations were enough to punish Calipari again so we’ll have to let that slide. Don’t worry, we won’t let him get off that easy.
The fact that Calipari has put two schools on probation and continues to coach isn’t why I find him to be a disgrace to college basketball. That fact is more an indictment on the NCAA than it is on Calipari. My issue with Calipari is the way he runs his program, and the fear I have for his style becoming a theme in the sport is why he’s a problem. Kentucky lives off getting the best high school players in America, with the intention of having them stay for one year, two at most, and then replacing that talent with new talent. This makes Calipari more a collector than a coach, a showman who’s given a front row seat to watch the best team in the country as he holds the door for 18 and 19 year-olds on their way to the NBA. While I don’t see a problem with a school taking a young man for one season and allowing him to leave to further his career if he’s ready, I do have a problem with a school and a coach content with taking three, four, sometimes even five or six of these kids year after year. You see, that’s the problem with Calipari: often even the kids who aren’t ready to go pro still go pro. A program built on high school athletes choosing a college that will allow them to attend school for basically a semester and then go off to the NBA regardless of whether or not they’re ready? That’s a problem.
As Calipari continues his own epic quest to win himself a second national championship, we must not allow him nor this particular Kentucky team to let us forget all the teams, past and present, who have succeeded in implementing the more difficult process. As you turn on ESPN and hear Calipari mouthing off about how humble he and his team are, don’t forget the 2008 Kansas team, led by juniors Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush, which beat Calipari’s mighty Memphis Tigers in the championship. When you see the humble salesman telling a sideline reporter at halftime how much better his team has been since their last practice, think back to how Calipari’s first Kentucky campaign ended, a loss to a veteran and hungry lower seeded West Virginia team in the Elite Eight. And finally, as he steals the microphone from Jim Nantz after he wins the national championship and begins to echo his long sermon about how much better at basketball the University of Kentucky is than every other unworthy school in America, remember the Florida team just last season, which started four seniors and beat Calipari’s freshmen three times. Or, better yet, you can just sit there and admire the greatness that is John Calipari. That’s the way he would like it, anyway.