Basketball architect John Calipari is LEED-certified, a green builder who has won by treating his roster of cameo players as a renewable resource: bamboo in Kentucky Blue. Stars grow and go after flyby stints at Camp Cal, making their way to the NBA on a one-and-done pass to riches.
A decade ago, it was prom-and-done for prep players like LeBron James until NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to create an age-eligibility rule. It was legislation th in a teen's best interest, he vowed. He wanted to save 18 year olds from the pressure of a pro life that can be full of groupies, big money and Ciroc-infused nightclubbing by ensuring they'd experience a college life that can be full of groupies, big money and beer-bonging at keggers.
Cal exploited Stern's self-serving system best. Unlike others, he has never been shy about the sell. Coach Calipari traffics in lottery dreams, unabashedly selling five-star talents on the virtues of a speed-date with the NCAA as a route to their true love: NBA money and fame. Such a brazen strategy has been an affront to the student-athlete nostalgia lords -- Cal has been ripped by hypocrites (Bobby Knight) and handwringers (Billy Packer) alike -- but the scheme is effective to the bottom line of sustainable winning. Or is it? When 18th-ranked Kentucky walks into Rupp Arena on Saturday to face Rick Pitino's team-first, fourth-ranked Cardinals -- the Wildcats' loathed ideological opposite -- this won't simply be a rivalry between two programs that have won the last two national championships, the game will be a referendum on the Coach Cal Way.
Pitino isn't under such scrutiny. Not only did he lift the trophy last spring, but Pitino was also lauded for assembling his teams the right way -- for the long haul, built on maturity -- even if he'd give one of those perfectly placed hairs on his head to have Cal's recruiting class. Pitino is a smooth, thoughtful nurturer with an air of class. Cal is a say-anything hot mess who makes people want to punch him in face.
Patience has a short wick for outliers -- and no one dances on the edge of convention like Cal. Two years after he built an NCAA title on the unselfish prowess of freshman Anthony Davis, and one year after an injury to freshman Nerlens Noel landed his team in the NIT, Calipari has to answer the questions: Can he create a dynasty when he relies on the random selection of recruits to jell in an instant? Can he manage consistency from a system based on a starring cast in constant rotation? Can he maintain quality control when the product comes from a microwave philosophy?
"It's hard," said Greg Anthony, who will call the game for CBS, when reached by phone. "Part of the other issue is sometimes the guys that are expected to be great players, their learning curve takes a little longer. When you have those kinds of expectations, you can be hampered by that one time when it happens. When you go back two years to the championship, what made Kentucky so special was that their best player didn't need the basketball. That allowed everyone else to get into a rhythm and a flow. He was such a great talent and had such a great understanding of the game, that it actually elevated everyone else around him. It's not that the other players weren't good. But you look back now, and the majority of those other guys aren't having the same level of success at the pro level.
"You look at the guys now that Cal has -- and it's not to say they're not extremely talented -- but maybe they're not ready to make that jump. The challenge for Cal is in order to get them ready to make that jump, they've got to get into the business of playing basketball games for each other and not into the business of playing for the scouts. That's a tremendous challenge."
It's difficult to coach as if a piano is falling from the sky. But this is Cal's self-inflicted predicament. His system doesn't afford time to let a young talent evolve at a natural pace. So, he pushes hard, preaching effort with the cudgel of playing time to make his points fast and furious. He will sit a star like Andrew Harrison -- who watched a lot of plays from the bench as Kentucky beat Belmont this week -- and then tell reporters afterward, "I'm just going to keep working with him because at the end of the day, I want Andrew to be the best point guard in the country. Right now, most games, he's not the best point guard on the court."
Cal has never had a private thought. He speaks and tweets open and often with every tale -- real or exaggerated -- circling back to himself. But beneath this neurotic shtick, there is a brilliant coaching mind. In of all places -- on the court, in the spotlight -- Calipari has shown he can step back from being the center of attention at just the right moment. As Anthony explains, "What separates Cal from some of the other coaches is that a lot of guys can coach goodness and good players. Cal can coach greatness. He knows when -- just like a parent -- to let them go. Your goal is teach them to make good decisions and then allow them to play to their potential. He doesn't harness them. And that's a unique gift that he has."
Will the gift keep giving? Before the season, Calipari mentioned he would like to coach a 40-0 team before he retires. The remark instantly spawned a site selling "40-0" T-shirts in Kentucky blue, which just as quickly became dust rags after the top-ranked Wildcats lost to Michigan State in the third game of the season. Being loathed as a powerhouse is one thing for the Kentucky faithful. Being mocked as a national joke is another.
Over the past few weeks, there has been some debate in Lexington over the four-year decline in attendance -- which, to be fair, has happened throughout college basketball -- but the Wildcat base is rarely distracted by outside interests. So what gives? Is there a disenchanted following? Is there Cal fatigue? As DeWayne Peevy, Kentucky's associate athletics director, notes, there are many factors to attendance -- strength of schedule, the calendar, expectations, technology -- but he didn't buy into a common complaint: There is no connective tissue between fans and a team of players they hardly get to know.
"I think what having so many players in the NBA has done is to allow our fans to follow players and watch them develop in the pros," said Peevy when contacted last week. "There are fans who might go to Indianapolis for a Pacers game to see one of our kids play who wouldn't have gone before. In a perfect world, no one would want any kid to ever leave. But I think you also have to remember our attendance with Cal blows away the numbers we had during Tubby Smith's time here."
Wherever he goes, there is a Cal Bubble. He whips up excitement and NCAA glory -- whether at UMass or Memphis -- and then exits the campus like a Hollywood star with a ball of flame behind him. NCAA violations never touch him. He knows his cue to leave. He learned from his mentor Larry Brown, master of the move and owner of a U-Haul. End jobs before the job ends you.
At Kentucky, Calipari has a deal worth $5.2 million annually through 2019, but as of March 2014, according to published portions of his contract, he can leave the Wildcats without paying a $1 million termination fee. It doesn't matter that he once failed in the NBA -- see his 72-112 record with the Nets when he tried to force his rah-rah pitch on the pros -- he showed the recovery powers of a politician. He is polling well in the NBA rumor mills.
"As an administrator, you have to prepare for anything," says Peevy. "I know Cal. He had been waiting 20 years for this job. There's nothing out there that's piquing his interest right now. But you never know how things go. I mean this is a tough job. It comes with a lot. He's been here. It's his fifth year now. And we have the youngest team in the country. It can get a little hairy if things don't go the way you want them to go -- and that's two years removed from a championship."
Cal has dismissed talk that he would leave the Wildcats for an NBA gig. "I'm good where I'm at," he said recently. For now, staying is an easy decision. But you wonder how long the Kentucky base -- tolerant of the one-and-done strategy despite being disconnected from its revolving roster -- will sustain the Cal Bubble if a dynasty doesn't materialize. One thing about Calipari: If he senses a fire in the air, he will be quick to take the Cal Way down the highway.