ARLINGTON, Texas — A questioner asked John Calipari during one of the Final Four press conferences why his team seems to be such a magnet for criticism. Calipari answered, “It’s Kentucky.” No, it’s another eight-letter word synonymous with in-your-face success — Calipari.
Yes, Kentucky is part of the college basketball aristocracy. The Holy Roman Empire of college basketball, as Rick Pitino once put it, is back in the Final Four for a 16th time and the third time in the last four seasons under Calipari. The blue bloods from the Bluegrass State are seeking their ninth national title.
But the reason it feels like the fate of Western civilization hinges on Kentucky and its latest group of hoops Hessians being vanquished isn’t just disdain for the one-and-done. It’s contempt for Calipari, a polarizing presence on the sidelines.
Coach Cal is like the New York Yankees, Notre Dame, the Dallas Cowboys, or black licorice. You either love him or you hate him. You either admire his swashbuckling, unapologetic style or you think he’s an unctuous huckster.
Calipari, 55, who is coaching in his fifth Final Four, enjoys being the parvenu kid on the block, but he also yearns to be embraced as a college basketball altruist, not an opportunist. Just own it, Cal. You play the one-and-done, NBA internship game better than anyone. There is no sense in trying to paint yourself as the Great Educator.
That’s where people get agitated and alienated.
“The issue of one-and-done has now become a bad connotation,” said Calipari Thursday. “So, we’re going to break out something new this week to get you guys off this one-and-done. So, that we can think about it in another term, which is trying to help these kids do what they’re trying to do as college students, where they want their careers to go.”
That makes Calipari sound like some sort of career counselor, not a high-powered college coach.
You know the famous song “That’s Amore”? Well, if it were adapted for Kentucky, it would go, “when the freshmen play a season and surely will be leavin’ . . . that’s Calipari.”
Kentucky is going to put five freshmen on the floor for its national semifinal game against Wisconsin on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium — twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, swingman James Young, center Dakari Johnson, and NBA lottery pick in-waiting Julius Randle.
Calipari won his only national title two years ago, aided by a trio of fabulous freshmen, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague. In 2011, Coach Cal went to the Final Four and three freshmen, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb, were his leading scorers.
Last season, Calipari’s experiment in drive-thru McDonald’s All-Americans left him with indigestion. The Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament. They never jelled and a season-ending knee injury to freshman phenom Nerlens Noel of Everett, Mass., sealed their fate.
This season’s Wildcats were a preseason No. 1 but hadn’t lived up to expectations until the NCAA Tournament.
Whether you like Kentucky or not, it earned its way to Jerry Jones’s vanity venue. The eighth-seeded Wildcats came out of the brutal Midwest Region, defeating three of last year’s Final Four participants.
The precocious ’Cats defeated top-seeded Wichita State, which had been 35-0. They dispatched their blood rival, defending national champion Louisville. They then beat the 2013 national runner-up, Michigan, in the regional final in a game that belonged inside the Smithsonian as the epitome of March Madness.
Most folks rooting against Kentucky on Saturday night will be rooting against Calipari, not the kids. There will probably be quite a few folks in Amherst, who still recall Calipari transforming the University of Massachusetts into a Final Four team, rooting for him.
Admire him or despise him, Calipari is just playing by the rules that force players who want to go straight to the NBA to spend at least one season in college. If those players are going to be forced to attend college, many want to go to a school where they can major in preparing for the pro game.
That is all Calipari needs to say. Instead, he engages in sanctimonious double-speak when that subject comes up.
“We don’t talk about the NBA,” said Calipari. “We’re worried about winning college games and being a great college team — losing yourself in the team, doing less, which ends up being more, losing yourself in the game. So, I don’t think that kids are thinking those things.”
Really? This is the same coach who went on ESPN and called it the biggest day in the history of Kentucky basketball when five Wildcats were taken in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft.
There is an entire page in the Kentucky NCAA Tournament guide that lists how many NBA draft picks Calipari has coached. It’s right next to the page with how many top-25 recruits Kentucky has signed since Calipari became Kentucky overlord. The Wildcats have a fresh batch of four McDonald’s All-Americans headed to Lexington next season.
Calipari and adversary Pitino are the only coaches to take three schools to the Final Four. You can’t just roll the balls out, add blue-chip recruits, stir, and get a winner. It take some real coaching acumen.
Calipari can coach. However, his success seems to come with an asterisk.
The voluminous Kentucky media guide (202 pages) makes no mention of the fact that Calipari’s Final Four appearances at UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008) were later vacated by the NCAA because of rule violations involving star players Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose. They’ve been Nixonianly wiped clean.
Everything with Calipari is like his hair — shades of gray.
Calipari is never going to win everyone over. He’s going to have to settle for just being a winner.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.