Football may be the focus on college campuses across the country right now, but quietly basketball coaches are starting to get busy as well. Sure, practice is about to start in a few weeks, but really, that’s just the story behind the story. Instead the focus is recruiting, where many of the nation’s top players are taking official visits over the next few weekends. And that’s certainly true at Kentucky, where John Calipari is already hard at work, ready to replace their current group of players, many who still haven’t actually played their first college game.
Therefore, for the R.J. Barrett’s and Zion Williamson’s of the world — AKA the two best high school players available — they will soon be indoctrinated with the most effective recruiting pitch anywhere in college hoops. Within the next few weeks Calipari will come into their homes and – like so many other high school superstars before them – explain why Kentucky is the place to spend their one and only year on a college campus.
But while so much of the focus through the years has been on Calipari, a man who is widely accepted to be the best recruiter in the game, few people have bothered to ask the question “why?” Why does Coach Cal have that title? And what does he say that lures the nation’s top players to whatever school he’s coaching at year after year after year?
It’s a question we decided to ask a handful of AAU coaches and parents of players — those who’ve actually sat in on a recruiting meeting with Coach Cal — and the answers we got all centered on the same themes. They painted the picture of a guy who is both brutally honest and intensely sincere. A guy who helps lay out a road map to the NBA, but makes no guarantees that they’ll get there.
But before he does all that, well… he’s Cal. In essence, he understands that recruiting comes down to building relationships. And nobody — maybe in the history of college athletics — is better at building them than Cal.
“No matter how long he’s known you,” said Etop Udo-Ema, the Director of the Compton Magic AAU program, who has known Calipari dating back to his days at Memphis. “If he’s known you for five minutes or he’s known you for 30 years, he’s going to make you feel like he’s known you for 30 years. That’s a skill. That’s not something you can just be. There are hardly any coaches like that [in college basketball].”
Calipari truly is one of a kind, but so too is the message he delivers to recruits and their families. Sure it’s about getting to the NBA, and making lots and lots of money in the process. But it’s also about the road to get there too. And Calipari is quick to emphasize that it won’t be easy, and that, as he loves to say, “Playing at Kentucky isn’t for everyone.”
“Cal stressed to me as a parent and Tyler, ‘Kentucky’s not for everyone, understand that if you come here, we’re going to expect a lot,’” said James Ulis, the father of former SEC Player of the Year, Tyler Ulis said. “It wasn’t just what the coaches wanted, or [what happens] on the court. The fans expect a lot. If you come to Kentucky, you better play. That’s important here and not everyone understands that.”
And because there are so many challenges to playing at Kentucky, Calipari takes a more nuanced approach in recruiting than most coaches. Cal is notoriously deliberate in handing out scholarship offers, and it isn’t always for the reason people might think.
Some believe that it’s solely based on talent; that he is waiting for the cream to rise to the top, and to be absolutely sure — beyond a reasonable doubt — that he really is recruiting the “best of the best” (a promise he made in his first press conference at Kentucky).
More so however, it’s not just about whether a kid can play or not (although that’s important) but all the other stuff that comes with playing at Kentucky. It’s figuring out whether the player is mentally tough enough. If they can handle adversity. If they thrive in big moments or run from them.
“Calipari is very clear on, ‘people don’t really want us to win,’” said Justin Downer, who coached current Wildcat freshman Jemarl Baker with the West Coast Elite AAU program. “So how is he going to respond when we go to these arenas in the SEC, where on a Thursday night they’ve got a couple thousand people there, and then Kentucky’s there and they’re waiting outside in line for tickets? How do you respond to those environments?”
Once Calipari spoke with the West Coast Elite staff, the marriage between Baker and Kentucky became a perfect fit.
“The more he talked about those elements, the more we knew it was a fit for Jemarl,” Downer said. “The bigger every single game has been for Jemarl Baker, the bigger he’s played. So that was an absolute fit in terms of that.”
So proud of our guy @_jeyb3 on his commitment to Coach John Calipari and Kentucky! Don't know if there's a kid who trust the process more!
— Justin Downer (@CoachJDowner) April 11, 2017
And really, that’s the “tough” part of the Kentucky experience, the idea that playing there isn’t always easy. But there are perks as well.
For one, you’ll be part of a new, extended family, even when you’re away from your actual one.
“If your son comes here, we’re going to watch over him,” Calipari told the elder Ulis. “We’ll make sure he goes to class. We will make sure he is held accountable for what he does on the court and off the court. We will help turn him into a man. He [Calipari] clearly told me that.”
Of course Calipari talked about something else too. He talked about how – if Tyler did the work – no school would better prepare him for the NBA.
“He’s going to get an opportunity to go to the next level,” Ulis said. “And he’s going to get an opportunity to make a living at this thing we call ‘basketball.’”
More than just making it to the NBA though, Calipari is able to offer something else that only a few programs (think the Duke’s, UCLA’s and Arizona’s of the world) can. He can offer you the opportunity to get better every day, by practicing against NBA caliber talent. Not everyone can go two-deep at virtually every position with guys who will one day make it to the league. The Wildcats can.
“That was one of the big things,” Downer said. “He said ‘you’re grinding with a bunch of guys that have a realistic chance at the same dream.’ He [Jemarl Baker] is going up against Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and Quade Green [every day in practice]. Everyone wants to get to the NBA, right? But not every school has four guys at those positions battling.”
More than anything though, what separates Calipari from so many of his peers is what has been alluded to throughout this piece: The guy is just brutally honest. He doesn’t guarantee playing time during the recruiting process, but does promise that the best player — regardless of class ranking or recruiting stature — will play.
In being honest, he eliminates any complaints a player can have once they get to campus. It also builds trust in players that if they follow Calipari’s lead good things will happen.
“[The message is] If I do my s**t and I do what I’m supposed to do, he’s going to get me where I need to be and have my best interests at heart,” Udo-Ema said. “People always wonder ‘how do dudes just keep going there [and are willing to play back-up roles] behind guys.’ It’s like, because if you go there and put in the work he’s going to get you there [to the NBA].”
It also proves that despite what has been written about him by some in the past, Calipari really is a guy who puts his players interests ahead of his own.
“Cal is in it for the right reasons,” Udo-Ema said. “He’s made his money.”
“Everyone is like ‘Cal’s cheating.’ Man he’s not cheating. You think he’s going to risk all those millions of dollars for a kid? Are you kidding, f**k no he’s not. But he’s going to show you how to get your money. The reality is, he’s one of the only guys in college basketball — there’s a couple, but he’s one of the only ones — that is trying to push you to get your money.”
So really, the context of “What makes Calipari the best recruiter in the game” really comes down to some of the simplest tenants in life. Work hard. Treat people with respect. And always tell the truth, whether the other person wants to hear it or not. Do that, and good things happen to you.
“If you add all those qualities together, a guy who is going to work really hard, is super personable, can really move the room, a guy who can get in there and make you feel super comfortable in a short amount of time, what have you got?” Udo-Ema asked.
“You’ve got the best guy in the game. That’s what you got.”
Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”