SAN ANTONIO – When Massachusetts athletic director Frank McInerney was looking to hire a basketball coach back in 1988, he kept getting phone calls about one particular candidate.
Only the people – rival coaches, athletic directors, basketball power brokers – weren’t saying why UMass should hire John Calipari, but why it shouldn’t. Too much drama, too many shadows, everyone was whispering.
Then McInerney got a call from UMass alum Rick Pitino who laid it out simply: if all of your rivals are telling you not to hire a guy, then that’s who they fear and that’s, of course, who you hire.
So here in 2007, the University of Kentucky, seeking a head coach for its historic program, might want to consider not just Pitino’s old, sage hiring advice, but also who Louisville's head man would least like to see down the road in Lexington.
John Calipari may not even get a call from UK to replace Tubby Smith, but if you want to know the guy that the Wildcats' main rivals fear most, the one everyone in basketball believes would win multiple national titles for the Big Blue, well, here’s Johnny.
Cal takes his Memphis Tigers into Saturday’s Elite Eight game against Ohio State on a 25-game win streak, yet with a chip on their shoulder. Which is just how he likes it, how he always sees it.
They say a lot of things about Cal, but one thing no one can deny is he wins and wins and wins. And he does it at places where it isn’t supposed to happen – first moribund UMass, now left-to-rot-in-Conference-USA Memphis.
The Tigers program is not some small enterprise by any means, but it is beyond anyone’s imagination (except Cal’s) that despite being stuck in a mid-major league they are 33-3, in consecutive Elite Eights, and once again boast a roster loaded with future NBA talent, with another to-die-for recruiting class en route.
It isn’t a surprise that Cal’s team plays a smart, sensational offensive style (he calls it a cross between Euro-ball and Princeton) and the requisite grill-to-grill defense. This is now almost the mirror image of the program he built at UMass and took to the 1996 Final Four, the one that made Pitino look so clairvoyant.
The guy is no joke. What he does is no fluke. He keeps winning while always being the outsider, at the outsider school, crashing the gilded gates of college sports.
Which is why there is no doubt he’d win big if he ever got a chance to do it at a place with the enormous resources, strength and history of Kentucky. If he can do this at UMass and Memphis, imagine the possibilities at UK.
Since Thursday, when Tubby Smith finalized a deal to head to Minnesota, the buzz throughout college hoops has been who replaces him at Kentucky? In many ways, at least among the game’s coaches, administrators and media, it has overshadowed the actual tournament.
About a million names have surfaced, some serious, many ridiculous. But no matter what, in scores of conversations, I’ve yet to hear anyone counter a simple premise – assuming Billy Donovan is not possible (and he's a long shot), no one is a surer bet to deliver championships to UK than John Calipari. No one.
He is a ferocious recruiter, master motivator and intense practice coach; his teams play with both passion and flair. His kids will run through walls for him. He’s just the extrovert that would lap up the spotlight of the Big Blue Nation, who would embrace the immense expectations of the Commonwealth and boldly proclaim that Kentucky is back and not backing down.
He won’t get the establishment vote because he’s never been one of the chosen ones, the golden boys of the sport. Just as they tried to keep him from getting that first job, the whisper campaign will try to keep him down again.
Cal plays tough, so he can’t complain when people play tough back at him. He’s no angel, no victim here. In a cut throat business, he's gotten himself into some jams. He owns a knife too.
But anyone with any knowledge of the seedy world of college basketball knows that there are no black hat and white hat coaches the way the NCAA and CBS public relations machines want you to believe. They are all gray out there. They are all more similar than they want you to know.
It wasn’t Cal’s program that was placed on probation last year for multiple violations including have a millionaire booster dole out cash, gifts and travel to a player (Darnell Jackson) and his AAU coach.
It was the Kansas Jayhawks, courtesy of Roy Williams’ tenure in Lawrence.
It isn’t Memphis that enters Saturday’s game in the South Regional currently on NCAA probation with the lower graduation rate, it is the Ohio State University.
If you think his kids don’t study, Calipari has all the graduation stats to refute you. If you think it’s just street ball the Tigers are playing, ask any other coach or scout which team, Duke or Memphis, runs a more complicated, sophisticated offense and then watch them laugh at the comparison.
It’s an important moment for UK, if only the competitive balance has changed around Lexington in the past few years. The Wildcats are still big dogs, but they aren’t the only ones. Ohio State has a juggernaut going to the north, ferocious recruiters Kelvin Sampson (Indiana), Bruce Pearl (Tennessee) and Pitino surround the other sides.
If Kentucky is going to get this thing truly rolling again, they need someone who can dig in and scrap right along with them.
Mostly the Wildcats need to consider the very person all of those rivals hope they don’t hire. There are a lot of nice guys being mentioned for the UK job, a lot of nice coaches, a lot of nice media creations.
It might be time for Kentucky to get a little less nice.