John Calipari knows a thing or two about motivating young kids.
After taking 17-, 18- and 19-year-old kids year after year, molding them into men and oftentimes placing them in the NBA, he has an idea of what it takes to get them to work hard enough to succeed and this level and take the next step.
The key might surprise you. Coach Cal said it’s fear.
“Not fear of me,” Calipari said, “(fear of) ‘I’m not good enough. Oh my gosh, I thought I was.’ ”
The fear of failure, Calipari said, is what fueled past players like Derrick Rose and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Coach Cal said Rose used to stay in the gym for five hours for fear or not making it.
According to Calipari, Kidd-Gilchrist texted him after his first couple of exhibition games with the Charlotte Bobcats that said he may have made a mistake, expressing fear that he wasn’t good enough yet to play in the NBA.
“What?!” was Calipari’s response. “Are you kidding me, kid? You may not shoot it as well, you may not bounce it as well, but the things you do, no one else does. You just keep playing hard and competing. That’s what you do. He was scared to death.”
What about the other guys?
“The guys that think they’re it, they’ve made it – I’ll be honest – normally don’t make it,” Calipari said.
Head coach: Eric Reveno (88-110 at Portland)
Conference: West Coast
Player to watch: Ryan Nicholas (13.6 points, 10.1 rebounds)
Series history: UK leads 3-0
Last meeting: UK won 87-63 on Nov. 26, 2011
The way Calipari explains it, fear is what made his previous younglings understand how hard they were going to have to work to become successful. This year’s group hasn’t had that epiphany yet, so Coach Cal is using an “old school” method to wake them up – both figuratively and literally.
If they don’t understand how hard they have to work to win at this level and please their coach, they will after the conditioning program Calipari instituted after Tuesday’s game.
Every morning for three weeks – or until Coach Cal sees that they’ve gotten the message – the Cats will wake up for a 7 a.m. conditioning program — an early introduction to “Camp Cal” — with strength and conditioning coach Ray “Rock” Oliver, whose no-nonsense, in-your-face approach is enough to instill fear in the players alone.
“We don’t mess around with Rock,” sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow said.
Calipari said he started the program because he was convinced that being out of shape was the only reason his team could have stopped playing in the second half Tuesday against Samford. As it turns out, that was more of a façade for the real reason – that he’s still trying to work on his team’s “will to win,” a competitive spirit that his players haven’t shown their capable of exerting for a full 40 minutes.
The workouts are what Calipari is describing as a “forced Breakfast Club,” similar to the one Kidd-Gilchrist organized a year ago (more on this later).
“It’s really more of a mindset,” Calipari said of the workouts. “It’s not going for an hour in the morning. A lot of it is the mental part of training in the morning – mentally tougher, mentally stronger, not letting go of the rope, stuff like that.”
Harrow agreed, noting that the getting up part is harder than the actual conditioning. If they dread getting up that early, they’ll end the morning runs by playing harder and longer in the games.
“This team we have, we’ve got a good group of guys,” Coach Cal said. “We really do. They just don’t know how hard you’ve got to work or what kind of investment you have to make in this sport. I’ve always had a couple guys on the team that could drag others. We’re still trying to find that mix.”
Around this time last year is when Kidd-Gilchrist formed the original Breakfast Club. The Breakfast Club was a group of players Kidd-Gilchrist got to wake up with him early in the morning to work out, lift weights and hang out together.
Those within last year’s team credited the chemistry built from those morning workouts with setting UK over the top last year and making that team so special. Coach Cal often talks about self-sacrifice and playing for each other, which the Breakfast Club helped foster.
Harrow said freshman guard Archie Goodwin has shown similar traits to Kidd-Gilchrist, noting that he sometimes “drags people in” the gym to work out with him, but it’s taken time this year to get players to understand that being special is more than just showing up for regularly scheduled practices.
Coach Cal calls it “falling in love with the gym.”
On Friday, nearly the entire team was on the court ahead of practice to work out with the assistant coaches, a familiar setting for last year’s group but an inconsistent one for this season’s team.
“I think we’re starting to fall in love with it more, I can say that,” said Harrow, who Calipari commended for improving his work habits and showing up early. “A lot of us are in here again in workouts before practice and some of us are getting in late at night. I’m starting to see what the team had from last year.”
Harrow said the intensity of Calipari has increased to a point unlike anything he’s seen in his year and a half at Kentucky. Calipari told the team that it’s a similar “old school” approach he used with his Massachusetts teams.
Speaking to the media Friday, Coach Cali described the “roughhouse practices” as “pushing buttons.”
“Probably holding them more accountable than any other team,” Calipari said. “(Of) the team’s that I’ve had here, anyway, this team has the farthest to go. It’s not schemes, it’s not offenses, it’s not defense. It’s a competitiveness, a will to win and then holding each guy accountable for that.”
Asked if there was a point in the whole tough love approach where he would have to back off to prevent him from hitting players’ breaking points, Calipari said it’s not about breaking; rather, it’s about showing them what it takes to be as good as they want to be.
With the proper prodding, Calipari said guys like Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins got that.
“They worked their butts off to get themselves where they needed to be,” Coach Cal said. “They did it. They worked. We put them in a great position and they were surrounded by other teammates that cared about them. But it’s a combination of all that, and this may take as long. We’ll see. I mean, we’re going to go (one) day at a time, and we got the following week, we got the following week after that. We got more control of their time, and we’ll try to take advantage of it.”
In time, Calipari said everyone will be able to tell if this year’s players make a similar transformation. Whether it’s from that defining fear of failing, fear or conditioning or fear of their head coach, everyone will be able to tell.
As his players get ready to play Portland on Saturday, a team that Calipari said looks a lot like Notre Dame, the results will speak for themselves.
“I told our team, ‘All that we’ve been working on, we’re going to see now if you’re only doing it because I’m making you do it or you’re doing it because you want to change. Now it will be for everybody to see,’ ” Calipari said. “Because if they’re only doing it because I’m making them do it, at some point in the game they’ll let go of the rope. If they’re doing it because they know they have to change, they’ll play a full game.
“Now that doesn’t mean you win Saturday, but it means when everybody watches, they leave the building and say, ‘Those dudes fought for 40 minutes. I can live with that. We’re going to be fine.’ I think that’s the response you’ll get.”