- Mississippi State Bulldogs - January 17, 2017 - 7:00 PM EST - Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss. - ESPN
The CoachCal.com Insider is a periodical series that features the observations and inside view of CoachCal.com editor Eric Lindsey. The feature is aimed at giving CoachCal.com readers another glimpse into the world of Coach Cal. What’s he like? What goes on around the office? How does he handle the day-to-day duties of the job? We answer all that in more in the CoachCal.com Insider. Today, we tackle the myth of the offseason.
It was this time one month ago that hoops hysteria had reached a boiling point in the Bluegrass State.
It was Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Final Four in New Orleans. The two schools had never played each other this deep in the NCAA Tournament, and now, with both schools seemingly atop college basketball, here they were at the doorsteps of the national championship.
Quite simply, it was a scenario unlike anything the game’s most heated rivalry – take a backseat, Duke-North Carolina – had ever seen before. And here I was, in my first year as editor of CoachCal.com, doing my best to cover it all and detail UK’s eight national championship.
You know the rest of the story. Kentucky beat its rival in arguably the most hyped NCAA Tournament game in decades, pulled away from Kansas early in the national championship game two days later, before holding the Jayhawks off late.
The scene, even as I look back on it four weeks later, was surreal. It was rewarding, exhausting, breath-taking and spectacular, all wrapped together. Confetti flew, players hugged and coaches cut down the net.
That night, as I detailed in this piece after the championship, the team celebrated well into the wee hours of the morning. For some, it will be the pinnacle of their careers. For the fans, it was a shining moment in a 14-year drought too long to bear. For everyone, it was the moment they’d cried, sweat and prayed for all season long – a gratifying, super-sweet, rewarding moment.
And now it was over.
In the days and weeks after the championship, I’ve been asked over and over again, “What’s the offseason been like after a national championship? Had time to exhale yet?”
My response, every time, is “Offseason? What offseason?”
Championship or not, there is no offseason for Kentucky basketball, at least nothing like the offseason one would expect for a six-month break from games.
Even if the Cats wouldn’t have won the title, this is Kentucky basketball. The state’s heart beats with the rhythm of basketballs on the hardwood, and no break, no matter how long it seems for the fans, can ever calm a program so important to the school and so meaningful for the fan base.
For me, there was no break after a championship, no time to celebrate a year’s worth of hard work. When the stakes become bigger, the amount of coverage you yearn for becomes more important, so myself and the rest of the CoachCal.com staff plugged away for the hours, days and weeks following the title game to provide you with all the coverage a national championship run deserves.
We hope you enjoyed the coverage from start to finish, and we’ll continue to roll out more moments from a season you’ll never forget. But you’re not reading this piece to find out what the CoachCal.com staff did after a national championship, so I digress.
In the hours after the championship, yes, there was plenty of celebrating for Calipari and his players. Coach Cal danced, players threw beads in New Orleans and fans partied until the sun rose.
But when the hangovers wore off and the sun rose the next few days, the championship was not over. It was just getting started.
With a full understanding of the importance of the program and the meaning of a championship to the fans of the Kentucky program, Calipari shook off the fatigue of a long and exhausting season and made a concerted effort to give back to the Big Blue Nation. Just bringing back to the trophy to the Rupp Arena and celebrating with 20,000-plus fans wasn’t enough, Coach Cal decided. He had to do more.
So a week after winning the championship, Calipari called his staff into his office and asked how they could give back to the state. After some deliberating and discussion, Calipari and his staff reconvened on the next day and decided to do a statewide trophy tour.
That was a Tuesday.
By Thursday morning, the staff was buckled up on a blue bus and headed to towns across Kentucky with the trophy. There was little time to prepare and publicize the event, but it didn’t matter. No matter where the staff stopped – whether it was planned visits to Pikeville or Paducah, Elizabethtown or Owensboro, or a McDonald’s or Orange Leaf – fans showed up by the thousands.
Feasibly, it seemed impossible for everyone to get a chance to stand with the trophy, but Calipari insisted on giving every fan an a chance to take a picture with the trophy. Even with parking lots packed to the streets, fans filed next to Calipari and the trophy in groups of 20 to take pictures with a piece of hardware that comes only once so often.
On the bus, Calipari marveled at the passion and gasped every time the bus pulled into a town with an even larger crowd. By the fourth or fifth stop, fatigue was setting in with everyone else on the bus, but Calipari pressed on and seemed to genuinely enjoy every moment with every fan.
The trophy tour would eventually continue without the coaches that weekend in Lexington and Louisville, but Calipari and his staff picked it back up last week in Cincinnati at a Reds game. Once again, Calipari insisted on taking pictures with the fans and even brought the trophy inside a local restaurant in the Queen City to surprise some random Kentucky fans.
All that was exhausting enough, but it’s only one part of a championship postseason. In between the trophy tour and title obligations, Calipari and his staff had the normal offseason obligations to attend to.
By the end of the month, underclassmen had to decide whether or not they were declaring for the NBA Draft, and by the middle of the month, five of them decided to turn pro.
Calipari was already expecting several of them to leave and had been preparing diligently to refill his roster for next year during the offseason. But when all five decided to go pro – which Coach Cal supported – it placed an even bigger weight on the all-important signing period in April.
Calipari, once again, knocked one out of the ballpark, signing top-rated Nerlens Noel with another player or two potentially in the fold.
In between all that, there was the month-long process of catching up from a championship run. There have been letters to write, autographs to sign and voicemails to return.
When you win a championship, everybody wants to talk to you, and Calipari gets that. For a month straight now, he’s showed up to work every day – no days off that I can remember – and embraced what it means to win a championship. Even if he’s been tired, he hasn’t shown it, continuing the grind of a season that never stops.
Now will Coach Cal and his staff take a little time off in the coming months? Sure. It would be unreasonable and impossible to expect them not to. At some point everyone – including Calipari – needs a breather, and he and his staff plan on taking one in parts of May.
But the break will be brief.
The staff’s satellite camps will hit the road at the beginning of June and some of the players will report for summer school just before. At the end of the month, Calipari will head to New York for the NBA Draft, and then July opens up a critical recruiting period for the 2013 and 2014 recruiting class.
Before you know it, September and October will roll around, tickets for Big Blue Madness will be on sale, and the season will be here once again. Hoops hysteria will hit a boiling point, and all will be right again in Big Blue Nation.
Yes, the burner has been dialed back for now and hoops fever is merely simmering at this point, but this is Kentucky basketball with Coach Cal at the helm. There is no such thing as an offseason.
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