By Alexander Goot
Drake and John Calipari have formed something of an unlikely friendship. After all, one is a 28 year-old Canadian rap superstar, and the other is a 55 year-old championship basketball coach. On Oct. 17th, at Big Blue Madness, the two men again rekindled what's been a close-knit relationship over the past few years. But lest there be any question about which man is the biggest star in Lexington, note that Calipari was the last man presented to the Wildcat faithful, and it was the three time platinum music superstar who provided the introduction.
For Calipari, who became Kentucky Basketball's 22nd Head Coach in April 2009, the formula for continued admiration was simple: Just win games. After years of gradual decline during the Tubby Smith era, followed by two disastrous seasons under Billy Gillispie, Wildcat fans weren't looking for a particular "type" of coach. It didn't much matter if their new hire was widely revered by the basketball establishment. They could have cared less about comparisons to the history and legacy of Adolph Rupp. What Kentucky wanted, what they needed, was someone who would re-establish Lexington as the center of the college basketball universe, by any means necessary.
Five years in, Calipari has proven himself up to the task.
The Wildcats are preparing for their most anticipated season since… well… last year, when plenty of basketball pundits, and even Calipari himself, talked about the very real possibility of a 40-0 season. Instead, Kentucky took their first loss in November, and struggled late in the season, before rebounding for an NCAA tournament run that took them all the way to the title game.
That championship loss may set the team up to make history this season. Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, and the Harrison twins are back. Tyler Ulis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Trey Lyles have arrived. In a strange way, Kentucky is turning this year into a testing ground. What happens when the ultimate "one-and-done" program actually puts a couple of classes together?
There are, of course, other contenders for the national championship. Arizona, Wisconsin and Duke -- to name just a few -- have built capable squads, and in the single elimination NCAA tournament format, anything can happen. But when it comes to pure talent on the roster, as crazy as it sounds, we probably don't even need to play the games. The Kentucky Wildcats are the most talented team in the country, by a wide margin. And this season could be a fitting culmination for a coach who has gone from being a pariah, to a prototype of how to succeed in the shifting landscape of college sports.
"What gives me hope is that I believe the tide is turning. The NCAA will soon have to reform itself or it will not remain the dominant force in college athletics. The situation reminds me a little of the Soviet Union in its last years. It was still powerful. It could hurt you. But you could see it crumbling, and it was just a matter of time before it either changed or ceased to exist." -- John Calipari from the book Players First: Coaching From The Inside Out
Calipari is not the first to notice the systematic decline of the NCAA. (Although he may be the first to compare it to the U.S.S.R.) The last decade has seen a sea change in the way the world perceives big time college sports, and the organization that regulates them. It wasn't all that long ago that "amateur sport" was considered a worthwhile ideal, as opposed to a sorry excuse for a multi-billion dollar system that only hands crumbs to the young athletes who are providing the labor. Thankfully, we've reached the point where every reasonable observer can see that things are broken, and the only real debate remaining is over exactly how to fix it.
As with any major social change, there are plenty of people who deserve a share of the credit. Writers like Dave Zirin, Patrick Hruby, Spencer Hall and Taylor Branch, just to name a few, have used their work to ceaselessly advocate for an overhaul of the system. Rabble-rousers like Jay Bilas have pointed out the NCAA's hypocrisy at every opportunity. And, perhaps most importantly, the athletes themselves have gotten involved, with Ed O'Bannon and Kain Colter becoming central figures in the fight to make things more equitable for the men and women who take the field.
But it's also worth giving a tip of the hat to Calipari himself, who has done wonders to expose the madness of the game, simply by playing it better than anybody else.
To understand how this has happened, we need only take a look at the NCAA's own advertisements. You've likely seen them before: They run every March and explain why the vast majority of "student athletes" are "going pro in something other than sports".
It's a cunning bit of misdirection, and it's long been central to the NCAA's entire conceit. "Pay no attention to the superstar athletes generating millions of dollars in a revenue sport," they say. "Instead, let's all focus on the fact that there are plenty of students here for whom sports is merely an activity, and not a future career." It's true, of course. Not to mention totally meaningless. Why should the fact that there are thousands of athletes who fail to generate revenue have any impact on a fair system of compensation for those that do?
Calipari's program has become a perfect, if unintentional, rebuttal to the NCAA's PR spin. When you play hoops at Kentucky, it's with the clear intention of going pro -- not in chemistry, or engineering, or music, but in basketball. The Wildcats have seen nineteen players drafted into the NBA since Calipari's arrival in Lexington. The list is as recognizable as it is long: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel. The reality is that cherished, sacred, historic Kentucky Basketball is now less of a college program, and more of an NBA farm system, a brief stop-over for players who simply need somewhere to play do until they reach the league's arbitrary age limit. Coach Cal makes no apologies for that.
"People jumping at money is not particular to basketball," Calipari writes in his most recent book, "Or sports. It's just part of the human condition. It's what most people do, given the opportunity. And by the way, we're not talking about money that's out there for getting involved in something criminal. No, what these kids are faced with is having a big pile of money put in front of them for something they already love -- playing basketball. Are you kidding me?"
No John, we're not kidding you. No matter how many years go by, our college sports system continues to tie itself in ridiculous knots, all in an effort to protect the outdated notion that somehow our games are less pure once money is introduced into the equation. We are a country that embraces unbridled capitalism in virtually all its forms, yet for some reason casts shame on any young athlete who has the temerity to extract some value from his celebrity and hard work. Todd Gurley sits for weeks because of a few hundred dollars worth of autographs. Terrelle Pryor ends his college career early because of improper tattoos. And if you travel way back in time, the University of Massachusetts has a Final Four appearance wiped from the record books because Calipari's first star prospect, Marcus Camby, was found to have accepted gifts from an agent.
Yes, Calipari is more familiar than most with the tangled web of the NCAA. His name, and his coaching legacy, is rarely mentioned without an immediate reference to his two vacated Final Fours, in 1996 and 2008. For years, these penalties have followed Calipari. They've branded him as a man willing to take shortcuts, to win at all costs, to bend the rules as far as possible. The always brilliant, always biting Charlie Pierce once labeled him "the sleaziest coach in a sleazy game."
But while Calipari's hands are far from clean, it seems harder and harder to hold him to account as the system crumbles around him. The world has, at long last, awakened to the fact that for decades, we've allowed talented young men to be exploited, used to fill the coffers and enrich the wallets of schools, networks, advertisers -- everyone but the athletes themselves. As we finally, collectively, come to grips with the twisted modern version of indentured servitude that we have built, it becomes quite difficult to summon much outrage for a man who has occasionally run afoul of these draconian rules and regulations.
Sure, Coach Cal is no saint. He will, in his own words, forever wear the "black hat" as far as the NCAA, his peers, and much of the media are concerned. But in an operation that runs on pretense, and hypocrisy, and deceit, there's something to be admired about Calipari's brazen way of getting things done. Yes, he's going to recruit the best players in the world. Yes, he's going to help make them millionaires. And yes, he's far more concerned about their ball handling abilities and their quick first step than he is about whether they're still around for senior year. College basketball has become big business, and John Calipari is the ultimate tycoon. But at least he's living in reality, and not the absurd amateurist fantasy that the NCAA so desperately clings to.
On Sunday, after his NAIA squad was predictably dispatched in short order by the Wildcats in a 121-52 defeat, Georgetown College Head Coach Chris Briggs reignited one of the most tired and ridiculous hypotheticals in sports. "I just told the guys in the locker room," said Briggs, "(Kentucky) could have beaten some NBA teams tonight. No doubt in my mind."
Yes, Briggs was simply trying to soften the blow after the beating taken by his overmatched club. And no, Calipari's incredibly deep, impossibly talented team is not actually capable of beating the 76ers, or Lakers, or any number of down in the dumps squads who will line up after the season for the privilege of selecting one of the Wildcats in next year's draft. Calipari himself was quick to dump cold water on the notion that his team could compete with even the most dismal NBA team.
I hear Coach Briggs got excited after the game last night. Let me be clear: If we played ANY NBA team, we would get buried. ANY.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) November 10, 2014
Kentucky is not good enough to beat an NBA team. But that's all right. We don't need them to be better than a pro club; we just need them to keep acting like one. Stockpile talent. Sell out arenas. Win games at a historic clip. Then send these young men off to the pros, as soon as they're ready, so they may begin their real careers.
Calipari has built a very professional operation in Lexington, and maybe it's exactly what we need to break down the last remnants of an amateur system that has outlived its usefulness.
Alexander Goot is a writer and producer for Fox Sports 1 in Los Angeles. His work appears atFoxSportsLive.com, and The Cauldron. You can follow him @AGoot18, (but be prepared for unabashed Mets and jam band fandom).