The search for a new Kentucky head basketball coach is rapidly drawing to a close with reports that John Calipari of Memphis has been contacted and is considering an offer. Billy Gillispie was fired last week after two lackluster seasons and a “growing disconnect” between his and the UK Athletic Department’s view of his role. Billy Donovan, head coach at Florida, surfaced as an early prospect before publicly denying any interest in the position.
Since that statement all of the talk has centered on John Calipari. Calipari is considered the “smart” hire for the Kentucky program. He has built a winner at Memphis (in the lowly Conference USA). Many forget the mess he left at UMass or the disaster his NBA career was with the New Jersey Nets.
The Nets record is forgivable because the NBA has chewed up and spat out many a good college coach (see Rick Pitino who left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics and quickly made his way back to college via Louisville).
The UMass program he helped build has never been the same since he left and the scandal that ensued from infractions and sanctions levied against the program. According to this report in the May 9, 1997 edition of The New York Times, UMass was penalized because Marcus Camby accepted gifts from a sports agent before the end of his collegiate career.
Calipari also was fined by the N.B.A. for deplorable comments (he used a racial epithet against a member of the media). However, he issued a mea culpa for his remarks and no other incidents have been reported.
His time in Memphis has been a great success and has gone without investigation or incident. Calipari, as many of his coaching counterparts, employs the idea of recruiting top level talent to play for only a short period of time, and then jump to the NBA (or other professional ranks). This means the program usually has some of the top talent. It also means, he has to recruit other players to balance out the graduation rate requirements.
Kentucky fired Billy Gillispie for, among other reasons, not being more willing to represent the university. He was about advancing his career and winning games. He did those two things without the public scandals that dented Calipari’s reputation and career in the 1990s. Now, UK is zeroing in on a guy not concerned with graduating players from school as much as he is concerned with producing next-level talent for the pros. How is that positively representing the university to anyone other than the N.B.A.? Call me old fashioned, but it is short-sighted to see that tactic as “the only way to win” these days.
I admit, quality pro prospects playing four years in college basketball are rarities these days, but to just be a talent mill undermines the very concept of “student-athletes.” That’s really another discussion for another day, but a strong academic institution like Kentucky has to be aware of what they are getting with Calipari, if they do indeed hire him.
Calipari may be a great coaching candidate and, if hired at Kentucky, I expect he will win a lot of games. However, Calipari is clearly about one thing – advancing his reputation and winning basketball. Those are not bad qualities, but when you fire a coach who was about those two things and bring in another one who is more of the same, it is hard to expect that this story will end well in the bluegrass state.