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John Calipari's "Players First" recruiting philosophy and the Kentucky fan base's thirst for championships clashed again Wednesday when the Wildcats coach addressed a crowd of 3,000 business executives after receiving a humanitarian award at Rupp Arena.
Most of the 15-minute speech consisted of Calipari describing the qualities a good leader should have and explaining how he gets his players to come together in pursuit of a common goal. The only potential surprise was what Calipari insisted Kentucky's primary objective last season was.
"Last year we started the season with a goal," Calipari said. "You may think it was to win a national title or win all the games, [but] it was to get eight players drafted. Well, how can you be about your team if you're worried about getting players drafted? We kind of work it the other way. What are your dreams? What are you looking for? What are you trying to get out of life? How can we help you with that?
"For me, the mission for me is to be a vehicle to help others reach their dreams, to be the stone that creates the ripple in their lives that goes on and on and on. Now in our state, they want my mission to be, 'win national titles, win national titles.' My mission is bigger than that."
Wednesday's speech certainly isn't the first time Calipari has made headlines by seemingly prioritizing draft picks over championship rings.
When Kentucky had five players selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft, Calipari riled longtime fans and former players by proclaiming it "the biggest day in the history of Kentucky's program." When Kentucky became the first college program to produce the No. 1 and 2 picks in the draft two years later, a beaming Calipari told reporters, "Somebody told me they are going to call it the Blue Room instead of the Green Room."
It's understandable that many Kentucky fans chafe at the idea of Calipari valuing individual achievements more than team accomplishments, but those people should consider the purpose of such comments. In reality, Calipari is using the media to speak directly to recruits, many of whom care more about identifying the best platform to reach the NBA than selecting a program where they can win a national title.
Does Calipari care deeply about winning championships at Kentucky? Yes. His disappointment after last month's Final Four loss to Wisconsin was proof of that.
Does Calipari care more about producing draft picks than winning titles? Doubtful. Both are surely important to him, but he recognizes that attracting elite prospects is the best way to contend for championships every season.
Do fans have a right to be irritated whenever Calipari insists championships are secondary to him? Probably, but they should also understand why he says that stuff too. It's a calculated recruiting tactic — nothing more and nothing less.
Ultimately, Kentucky will fall at least one shy of Calipari's goal of eight draft picks since Alex Poythress suffered a season-ending injury in December and opted to return to school. The Wildcats could still get seven players drafted next month, an impressive enough accomplishment that Calipari should once again get plenty of face time on draft night.
Maybe this time he'll stop short of calling it the biggest night in Kentucky basketball history, but you can bet he'll still find another way to sell his program to recruits.
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