“Coach Cal,” that’s the name folks around Lexington, Ky., call him. He has brought the basketball program they all revere back to the top of the heap.
Yes, John Calipari has made Kentucky basketball relevant again.
Now, no one can really argue that the 34-0 Wildcats have ever been irrelevant, not with the history of their program. The history rivals that of Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, and somebody could say No. 1 Kentucky is as important to the history of hoops as UCLA.
Yet despite all the NCAA titles that hang in Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins never had a fan base like the one in the Bluegrass State. They never had people who bled their school colors — men and women, students and children who lived and died with every bounce of the basketball.
Under Coach Cal, these Wildcats fans, who went into the 2014-15 season as the odds-on favorite to hang a ninth championship banner in the Rupp Arena rafters, have lived life without any deaths. He has put the ’Cats back into people’s conversation about what team each season will win a national title.
And Coach Cal has done it his way.
Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t get the acclaim Coach K, Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo and Roy Williams do. None of them has played the “one-and-done” game that has marked Calipari’s time with Kentucky. In so many ways, Coach Cal reminds people of the late Jerry Tarkanian, which isn’t the most flattering of comparisons.
Calipari has delivered more McDonald’s All Americans to campus than FedEx has packages, although few of them stick around to pick up a diploma or enjoy their senior season.
His philosophy has brought him more criticism than anything else. But the critics haven’t concerned him. Calipari hasn’t cheated; he hasn’t even bent the rules too much. He’s just used those rules well, whether we like that fact or not.
In college sports, it’s all about winning, and Calipari does win. We can be self-righteous and deny that college sports are not the minor leagues for professional sports, but we all have learned such thinking is fiction. College athletes resemble the rest of the student body in the same way a website resembles a campsite.
Calipari has acknowledged that he’s not bothered by any of it. The classroom is someone else’s jurisdiction. He coaches basketball, and he coaches the game at a high level.
In some ways, we can look at Coach Cal as the best and worst of college sports. He’s a man who cares about his players, a man who does his best to nurture them.
He is, as one sportswriter called him, a polarizing figure on the college scene. He’s to the college game what Bill Belichick is to the NFL: arrogant, confident and successful.
But we should not condemn Coach Cal for who he is. We should, as part of our implied pledge to those basketball gods, respect a coach for understanding their game and squeezing as much out of it as he can.
And when his squeezing leads to an NCAA championship, what more can anyone else ask of the man?
Not one darn thing.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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