While Sunday marked the end of Kentucky’s season, Monday marked something completely different – and it’s not the different you’re thinking of. We’ll get to that different in a minute.
Instead, what Monday marked, was the 10-year anniversary of the day that John Calipari was hired as the Kentucky head basketball coach.
When I think back on that day 10 years ago (a day and season I eventually wrote a book about, by the way), there is one thing that still stands out above all else. I remember hearing Calipari speak at that press conference, hear him drop terms like “from Pikeville to Paducah” and “we plan to recruit the best of the best,” and I remember thinking one thing vividly that day: I thought: “Man, this guy is just perfect for Kentucky.”
And ten years later, everything came full-circle. After Calipari agreed to a lifetime contract Monday, announcing that he will never have another head coaching job other than at the University of Kentucky, I couldn’t help but think the same thing I did 10 years ago to the day, only with a slight addendum.
On Monday, I thought to myself, “Man, we were all right. Calipari is the perfect guy for Kentucky.” I also thought to myself, “This is the way it should end. Calipari’s career shouldn’t finish anywhere other than in Lexington.”
And now, after Monday’s news, that conversation never has to come up again.
Now admittedly, it’s been a long since any of us believed that Calipari would actually leave Kentucky for another job. There is no college job that is either a better fit for Coach Cal or will pay better (sorry UCLA, you don’t fit either category) and except for one or two NBA gigs (mainly the ones where all the good players are) are any better than Kentucky? Sure, Cal could have made $10 million a year coaching the Sacramento Kings or New Orleans Pelicans or anyone else. But if you’re going to get fired after a couple years (and trust me, all NBA coaches not named “Gregg Popovich” end up getting fired) what’s the point? Once his son Brad enrolled at the school I figured it was a done deal that he’d finish his career there. On Monday it finally became official.
So now that the deal is done, and Cal is a Kentucky lifer, we can reflect on the past 10 years, while also looking at what the next few years of the Calipari era may look like as well. In the meantime, we can also hopefully agree on one thing: Having Calipari at Kentucky for however long he sees fit, is both awesome for the school and college basketball.
Now look, do Kentucky fans wish the first 10 years of the Calipari era resulted in another national title or two? Of course. Going forward, the expectation will certainly be that he wins one or two more titles before it all ends (if not more). We all know that at Kentucky, titles are the expectation.
Still, as we learn every year, winning national titles is hard, and the bottom-line remains that even despite “only” having one national title (which is stupid by the way), there literally hasn’t been a better coach in college basketball since the day Calipari arrived than Calipari himself.
As the ESPN graphic below indicates, there isn’t a single coach in America with more tournament wins or overall wins than Calipari since the start of the 2009-2010 season, and no one has been to the Final Four more than Kentucky either. Sure, every fan-base always wants more, but there isn’t any coach in America who is literally giving you more than Calipari is at Kentucky. Sure, Jay Wright has two national titles – but he also hasn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 any time other than those two title runs. I know most Kentucky fans would say “it’s about winning titles,” but I wonder how many would actually trade one more national title for two Sweet 16 appearances in the last 10 years. My guess is that the answer is not many. Same with Coach K, who has two titles, but has also come up more short more regularly in the tournament than Calipari. Seriously, can you imagine what the media reaction would be if Calipari had lost in the Elite Eight with three of the Top 5 picks in the draft on his roster?
Since John Calipari took over as Kentucky's head coach, the Wildcats have the most wins in Division I. pic.twitter.com/2rrqmKAmPv
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2019
More important than just wins and losses on the court, in the last decade Calipari has proven what was said at the top: There is no one who is a better fit for Kentucky than Calipari himself. Not just from an X’s and O’s standpoint, or recruiting, but holistic as well.
At Kentucky, being the “coach” doesn’t end the day the season does, but instead is a 365-day-a-year commitment. It’s not so much a job so much as a way of life. You’re basically the ringleader of a three-ring circus known as “Big Blue Nation,” and nobody gets that better than Calipari. Some day there may be a better X’s and O’s coach at Kentucky. Or the school might secure a better recruiter (although I doubt it). But nobody will get all the “other stuff” that comes with the job like he does.
To Calipari’s credit, he wins at insanely high level while also balancing all the other stuff off the court as well. He and his program are accessible through social media, podcasts, YouTube and a million other avenues. His players are active in the community ranging from “Hoops for Haiti” which took place in his first year on campus (and raised $1 million for hurricane relief) and on the “Big Blue Caravan” Tour last summer and in a million other ways in between. Calipari has turned scheduling big games into an art-form, teasing on social media who Kentucky will plan when and where, two or three years out (I’ll see you all in Vegas next winter by the way). He has turned a mundane summer trip that most fans didn’t even know was a thing, into a made-for-TV event. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s called “Big Blue Bahamas.” And I’m insanely jealous of all of you who have attended.
And now, with the last 10 years in the rear-view mirror, I’m fascinated to see what’s next. The first 10 years have given us Hoops for Haiti and the creation of the Champions Classic and CBS Sports Classic (two events which I believe Cal and Kentucky had a hand putting together) and Big Blue Bahamas. What will this program look like in 2030? The names may change, and the players may be a little different (especially if the one and done rule goes away) but as long as Calipari is in charge in Lexington, Kentucky will be on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the college basketball world. Which is exactly what the fan-base expects. Which is exactly why he is perfect for the job.
Oh, and one other thing: As long as Calipari is the head coach at Kentucky, the Wildcats will be in the conversation to win it all.
Above all, that has been the one thing that has changed the least since Calipari arrived in Kentucky. The players have changed from John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to Reid Travis and P.J. Washington, and the recruiting philosophy from “one and done factory” to a blend of NBA lottery picks, two and three-year guys and transfers. But the one thing that hasn’t changed from 2010 to 2019 and beyond, is that as long as Calipari is on campus, Kentucky always has a chance.
And that won’t change for the foreseeable future, after John Calipari signed a lifetime contract on Monday.
The perfect coach for Kentucky will end his career at Kentucky.
And that’s exactly how it should be.