It was three years ago Sunday that John Calipari was announced as the 22nd head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team. The Big Blue Nation met the hiring of Calipari with overwhelming enthusiasm, which quickly turned to great expectations as the scope of the hire sunk in.
Here was Calipari, who revived a moribund UMass program into a legitimate power, and elevated the Memphis Tigers into a yearly national title contender after years of dormancy, arriving at the doorstep of the Commonwealth with an impeccable track record and a knack for successfully recruiting the top players in the land to so-called “mid-major” programs. The question which permeated the Bluegrass was, what type of player will Calipari be able to bring to Kentucky?
With Cal’s hiring coming on the heels of an NIT appearance, which broke a string of NCAA invites than went back to 1992, and an 84-52 record for the previous four years, Cat fans were ready to think about the possibilities brought into play with the hiring of Calipari.
And right away, Cal told Kentucky fans he understood the demands of the job.
“They don’t put banners up here for anything except a national champion,” Cal said at his introductory new conference. “That’s why you want to coach here. We want to compete every year, and hopefully add to this wall.”
Then Calipari unveiled his understanding of the situation he was walking into, and his solution to the problem.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Calipari said. “We have to build,” and “you build through players.”
From the very beginning, Cal’s message to the eager-to-win UK basketball fans was that winning was all about the players.
“There’s three keys to winning championships,” Calipari said. “The first thing is have really good players. The second thing is have really good players. And I hate to tell you, that’s the third thing” also.
In order to get Kentucky back to where Kentucky is accustomed to being, Coach Cal made it abundantly clear: it was about the players, and it was his job to get them in the Blue and White.
“I’m here (at UK) because I can recruit the best of the best here,” Calipari said. “That’s why I’m here. We can go get who we need, then, it’s changing the culture” of the program.
Calipari cautioned it would take time to change the temperature of the program from tepid to white hot.
“I told Dr. (Lee) Todd and Mitch (Barnhart), ‘If you want something to happen in a year, do not hire me. But when we get it right, you notice we’re No. 1 in the country, we’re No. 1 seeds (in the NCAA tourney), we’re playing in Final Fours, when you get it right,’ ” Calipari said.
Belying Cal’s warning that lifting Kentucky back to its rightful place among the elite would not happen instantaneously was the manner and quickness in which he went about restocking the Kentucky cupboard. He brought in John Wall, the No. 1 player in the country, and DeMarcus Cousins, one of the top five players in the land, all within weeks of taking the UK job.
Surprisingly quick, Coach Cal had Kentucky back on the basketball map, as he continued to add one blue-chip prospect after another to the Wildcat roster, a continuing trend which has resulted in UK having the top rated recruiting class in the nation three years running, a source of immense pride among the fan base.
One aspect of Calipari’s recruiting which has enabled him to experience such blinding success is that he’s not only looking for the most talented players in the nation, wisely he’s searching for the players who fit at the University of Kentucky, and all that implies.
“The recruiting process, we don’t promise people how often they’ll start, how many shots” they’ll get, Cal said in 2009. ”It’s hard to come and play here, it’s not for everybody. There’s no place to hide, no crack to go down into. It’s not for everybody.”
It might not be for everybody, but Calipari could patent the art putting round pegs into round holes. He continues to bring not only talented players to Kentucky, he’s adds good teammates. The emphasis is not on “me,” but rather “we,” and it’s that team-first attitude which has bolstered the Cats’ return to prominence.
“Again, it goes to the recruiting process,” Calipari said Sunday in New Orleans. “If your best players are selfish, you’re going to have a selfish team. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had the players, like this, that share the ball. Our best players have all been good guys.”
The result of Cal’s uncanny ability to recruit the right people is a 101-14 overall record (23-4 versus ranked opponents), a 12-2 NCAA tournament record, two Final Fours, and this year, a record 37 victories. Calipari has, in a very short period of time, rebuilt the Kentucky Wildcat basketball program into a game-winning machine while competing for national titles on a yearly basis and redefining the Kentucky brand.
Calipari said the first time he spoke to Wildcat fans as the new UK coach, “Our goals will be to make the entire Commonwealth … proud of their program, proud of their team by our work on the court and our integrity off the court.”
Goals set, goals met.
Tonight, though, represents Cal’s best chance to date to win his first national championship and hang banner No. 8 in the Rupp Arena rafters. UK’s showdown with fellow blueblood Kansas in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is the pinnacle of the sport, the apple of every coach’s eye.
The NCAA National championship game, simply put, it’s where you want to be as the curtain is drawn on March Madness. And it’s a place Kentucky finds itself only three years removed from an NIT appearance.
Cal’s Cats’ quick comeback from mediocrity can clearly be traced to melding great players into a great team, a task made easier by Calipari’s recruiting criteria. That’s how a program competes for national titles, and it’s that knowledge that makes Calipari such a wildly successful head coach, win or lose.