Grading Calipari—By John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – After Kentucky’s 81-71 win over Alabama on Saturday, Wildcat basketball coach John Calipari tossed out a pointed appeal to all media covering the team. “Is anybody attacking me?” he asked. “I don’t know because I don’t read it. But if you are (attacking), be mad at me. Don’t be mad at the kids. I recruited them. I’m coaching them.” I’m never in much of an attacking mood after a satisfying victory, but in an effort to comply with his request, let’s take a peek back at Coach Cal’s report card.
During a midseason post-game press conference, I asked Calipari to give himself a grade on how well he thought he had performed in his role this year as head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. As is so often the case, he deflected the question, choosing instead to ruminate about his future retirement plans. “Look, here’s what I would say,” he answered with a sly grin. “I have no rear-view mirror in my car, to just let you know. Everything I’m doing is that way (pointing forward). I don’t look back. At some point I’m going to retire, probably sooner than later, and then I’ll sit on the beach and think about games we played and players I coached and some of the worst games I’ve coached.”
After the turmoil of this season, Calipari probably wishes he could fast forward to that time on the beach. Now with just a few games remaining and the regular season in freefall, he admitted his performance thus far this year contained a glaring deficiency. “My concern is that I have a bunch of young kids that at times don’t listen,” he admitted after the Auburn loss. “They don’t trust, and I told them that I failed them. I failed them because I haven’t built enough trust where when I talk to them, they are going to do what this man says.”
Those are candid thoughts from a hall-of-fame coach who has been around the game for the past thirty years—someone who has taken his Kentucky teams to four Final Fours, and who has helped players like Wall, Davis, and Towns forge lucrative NBA contracts. Forget about previous accomplishments, though. If the season were to end today, even Calipari’s most hardened supporters would agree that this particular Kentucky team has radically underachieved. Regardless of youth, five-star McDonald All-Americans should not be mired in the middle of the SEC or perched on the edge of the NCAA bubble.
As coach and mentor of these current student athletes, many would say that Calipari deserves the failing grade. But what do his players think about their coach? After all, this is a “players first” program and they were the ones recruited with visons of stardom and dreams of impending NBA riches dancing in their heads. What do they think after a year of challenging on-the-court struggles while watching their NBA draft stock plummet like a retreating stock market.
“I wouldn’t put any of this on Cal,” said freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt. It’s on us as players. We’re the ones competing. We’re the ones that gotta go out there and fight. I just think, like I said, just trust amongst each other. Cal’s going to coach us. We just need to come together as a team and just fight.”
Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander echoed those sentiments. “No, I don’t think he’s failed us,” he answered when asked about Calipari’s shortcomings. “I just feel like there’s just been some miscommunication and we just haven’t been really trusting him.” When asked what grade he would give his coach, Gilgeous-Alexander responded with a definitive, “A-plus. He’s good. Coach is always good.”
Whether A plus or F minus, there are still important games to be played, so judgment on Cal should be withheld until the semester concludes. Today’s victory over Alabama certainly helps raise the mark and sets the sights on a potentially passing grade. Perhaps with a flourish at the finish and if grading on a curve, that coveted A grade is still within reach.
“Let’s go do this. Next game. Let’s go,” Calipari exhorted. “And I really believe if we can win one, this thing starts changing for us, but you have to win one.”
After losing four in a row, Kentucky finally got that elusive win. Passing a pop quiz against Alabama is nice, but more excellence is needed to satisfy a demanding BBN. Calipari now needs to focus on acing the tournament final exams.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.