John Calipari’s decision to take the head coaching job at the University of Kentucky has reverberated throughout the sports world. Some have applauded the move by Kentucky to land someone (in the mind’s of some the only one) who could turn around a storied program. Others have frown on the move as being all too similar to Nick Saban’s jump from the Miami Dolphins to the University of Alabama.
One thing is for certain: the move has sparked debate with regards to the impact of Calipari’s move, as well as the ethics of “bringing in” players who had previously committed to Memphis. It has revitalized a fan base that does not accept NIT bids (and especially NIT losses) and pictures their beloved Wildcats in the Championship Game every season.
For Kentucky, the move is definitely similar to Alabama’s hire of Nick Saban. Alabama felt that they needed to make a huge splash in landing a big name, “established” head coach and pretty much sought only the big fish. Landing Saban was just what the football-crazed Tide fans needed and considering the results of year two, it would appear that the move has worked out well for Alabama. Kentucky also felt the need to cannonball into the pool of relevance in college basketball. The era of Billy Gillespie left an awful taste in Big Blue’smouth and the only way to rinse themselves of that stench is to hit it big. Landing Calipari has done just that, at least for the time being, and we will all find out soon if that pays off in the same way Saban has (so far) worked for the Tide. So, it is safe to say that the move was big for Kentucky.
But what about the move in terms of John Vincent Calipari? I would argue that the move for Calipari is actually a step down and that he is no better off than he was at Memphis. Let’s examine the perceived reasons why Calipari took the job. It apparently is not about the money, as Cal stated that he “would have made more money at Memphis.”
However, it does appear to be all about Kentucky’s “prestige”; that Notre Dame of Basketball being worshipped at Rupp Arena. It is a stroke of the ego to be coaching–and hopefully successful–at one of the most prestigious basketball schools in the United States.
But in reality that prestige is a facade. The Wildcats have not made a Final Four since 1998, when they last won an NCAA title. UK has not even made the Regional Semifinals (Sweet Sixteen) since 2005, which is also the last time that they won the SEC regular season title (last SEC conference tournament title was 2004). The powerhouse Kentucky is a (false) construction based on its glorious history that is not relevant to the landscape of college basketball today. But that construction and that history creates tremendous pressure to win and win now. The kind of pressure that Gillespie never could comprehend, and something that Calipari will have to dealwith for the first time in his coaching career (UMass and Memphis did not invoke the “win now” pressure that UK will bring forth).
It is because of this unnecessary pressure that makes Kentucky a step down from Memphis. In order to illustrate this, a recent comparison of the two programs is in order.
Memphis has traditionally been a strong basketball school. Perhaps not as dominant as they are now (or at least under Calipari), but strong. What Calipari has done is elevate the Tigers to an elite-tier program that is now annually considered among the teams competing for an NCAA title. In essence, Calipari created a situation where he can potentially win a title at Memphis; last year’s run and this year’s high seeding prove this. Unlike college football where a coach must be at a BCS-conference school (read: elite) in order to compete for a title, the landscape of college basketball is much different. Mark Few hasproven that a team like Gonzaga can be taken seriously despite playing in a so-called “mid-major” conference. Memphis carries this samepositionality that despite being in C-USA, the Tigers are still a top-tier program.
To be certain, Calipari can win a title while at Kentucky, especially with the SEC looking more like the SWAC. But, considering the situation he has built in Memphis, Calipari could also win a title while competing in Conference USA. Memphis regularly plays tough out-of-conference foes so the weakness of C-USA is not too much of a hindrance. In other words, Calipari could not have taken the Kentucky job just to win titles. If he was in a position to win an NCAA title either at Memphis or Kentucky, then the UK job cannot be a step up.
Maybe he would have better talent at Kentucky compared to at Memphis. This would put him into a better position to win a title. The argument includes the notion that just the name “Kentucky” draws kids to Lexington whereas Calipari would have to give a hard sell for Memphis. This is a difficult point to approach because (1) Calipari only recruited for Memphis while someone else recruited for Kentucky [i.e., different approaches to recruiting based on individuals], and (2) comparing Calipari’s future UK classes to those from Memphis would be a fallacy because the strength of the total class varies from year to year.
Nevertheless, the best approach would be to examine Kentucky’s recent recruiting classes to that of Memphis. Doing so would highlight the fact that Memphis was consistently bringing in talent. According to Rivals.com, Kentucky had the 18th recruiting class in 2003, followed by the top class in 2004. During these same two years, Memphis did not rank in ’03 and was ninth in ’04. The following season, Memphis ranked seventh in the country while Kentucky did not rank. 2006 witnessed low rankings for both (16th for UK; 23rd for Memphis). However, in both 2007 and 2008, Memphis ranked higher than Kentucky by a growing margin (tenth versus 13th in 2007; fourth versus 21st in 2008). And 2009 was shaping up well for Memphis as ESPN had the Tigers ranked fifth (based on commitments).
What this demonstrates is that Calipari was able to land big-time recruits in Memphis. He did not need “Kentucky” to get the talent he needed to be successful. Surely he will land big-time recruits while at Kentucky. But if he is able to get top talent either at Memphis or Kentucky, then the UK job cannot be a step up.
This gets back to pressure. All programs have pressure to win at some point in a coach’s career. Eventually, Calipari would have felt some pressure to get over the hump and win the NCAA tournament. But that kind of pressure to win now comes standard at places like North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA and Kentucky. And this pressure will be a 365 day a year force that will take its toll if things do not immediately improve in Lexington. Remember that Cal’s first two seasons at Memphis had the Tigers in the NIT (granted, playing in C-USA had a lot to do with that). Take the Wildcats to just one NIT and it could be Gillespie all over again.
So, let us summarize everything here. If Calipari can get the same (if not more) money in Memphis, can legitimately compete for an NCAA title at Memphis, and can land top recruits without the pressure of Lexington, then how is the UK job a step up at all? At best it is a lateral move, but more than likely it is a step down.
Few of us believe that Calipari will fail miserably at Kentucky. He appears to be the right man for the job and has accomplished more with relatively little in the past (at UMass and at Memphis). At the end of the day, this is nothing more than an ego-booster to prove to Calipari himself that he deserves to be mentioned with Coach K and Roy Williams and even Tom Izzo. For his sake, let’s hope he picked the correct feline from which to receive those ego strokes.