Wildcat Code: In the UK basketball program, everything is earned

When Ray “Rock” Oliver, a strength coach whose bowling ball physique and bellows would scare a 300-pound man into running a marathon, is growling at you to lift the bench bar higher, you lift it.

If Michael Stone, a jovial academic adviser with a side so menacing that he’s been known to make a player or two leave meetings in tears, tells you to get your academic “stuff” together, you show up to your next tutor session 10 minutes early.

And when John Calipari, the man behind 17 NBA draft picks and 13 first-round selections during the last four years, demands that you work harder, well, you’re going to take it up several notches.

The following story appears in the Official 2013-14 Kentucky Basketball Yearbook. Inside this season’s edition you’ll find:
  • Detailed information on each of UK’s opponents, including in-depth analysis of each of the Cats’ Southeastern Conference opponents as well as Michigan State, Baylor, North Carolina and Louisville.
  • A behind-the-scenes Q&A with each member of this year’s team.
  • Tom Leach on how this year’s freshmen could propel the Cats to another banner year.
  • Eric Lindsey on how this group of Wildcats has a code to live by.
  • Mark Buerger on why Kentucky is a destination for players seeking success.
  • Keith Taylor on how Coach Cal uses the Kentucky basketball platform to give back to the community.
Get all this and much more in the Official 2013-14 Kentucky Basketball Yearbook.

With those three in charge of work ethic and academics, accountability is rarely a problem in the Kentucky basketball program. Their personalities are as unique and as enjoyable as you will find in the University of Kentucky athletics department, but slipping past consequences with them in charge almost never flies. Fail to meet the standards they’ve set and feel their wrath you will.

Nevertheless, even those three couldn’t pull out what was required of the Wildcats during the disappointing 2012-13 season. No matter what buttons they pushed, what attitudes they tried to use to motivate the players, there just wasn’t enough push to get the team out of what seemed to be a forever-growing hole last year. (Note: UK’s problems were only on the court, as the Wildcats enjoyed their best academic year of the Calipari era, and Oliver was splitting his time between football and basketball until moving to basketball full time in December.)

Ultimately, when those three couldn’t collectively come up with enough motivation and enough fear to produce changes from what may have been an overwhelming number of problems from the get-go, Oliver, the coordinator of men’s basketball performance, decided something needed to change.

One day, sitting in Coach Cal’s office, Oliver had an idea that would not necessarily change the culture of the program and work ethic of the players, but ensure that standards were met with a strict outline of accountability. Oliver wasn’t exactly sure how the code would look, what it would entail or how Calipari would even respond to it, but he knew Coach Cal was an idea man who could take his thought and flesh it out.

The result was the Wildcat Code, a points-based system that rewards players for meeting their athletic, academic and leadership responsibilities. At the core of the code is accountability. While playing basketball at the University of Kentucky offers certain opportunities, there are privileges which must be earned.

“We have the best facilities in the country, the greatest fans in all of sports and the most efficient tools to help you reach your dreams,” the Code reads. “But none of that is given. All of it is earned. And starting today, you will be graded on your work ethic, your character and your leadership.”

When Oliver presented the idea to Calipari, he not only loved it, he told him to immediately put something in place for the offseason workouts the players go through while attending summer school. The system took what some viewed as their basic rights as players — their practice jerseys, their locker room stalls, their spots on road trips — and turned them into privileges.

Want to wear Kentucky gear to practice with your number on it? Accumulate 100 points. Want to earn the right to travel with the team? Get to 160 points. Don’t want to get kicked out of the practice locker room? Earn your right to stay there.

“I think with me, looking at last year, and just going over all the stuff that we did down here, I thought we had to make ourselves make them more accountable for what they’re doing,” Oliver said. “I didn’t want to go through anything like I did last year. I just think that if an athlete isn’t working to the standard we set, he needs to know, and he needs to know daily and visibly.”

The Official 2013-14 Kentucky Basketball Yearbook will be available at the following locations starting Oct. 18:
  • In Lexington at Alumni Hall
  • Fan Outfitters
  • Joseph-Beth Booksellers
  • Kennedy’s Bookstore
  • Central Kentucky Kroger stores
  • The Locker Room
  • UK Bookstore
  • Rupp Arena beginning at Big Blue Madness
  • And for the rest of the season, online at www.ukteamshop.com and www.imgproducts.net

Under the Wildcat Code, the Wildcats are graded every day on a scale of 0-4 in two different categories: their work ethic in workouts and their academic and leadership responsibilities. Oliver grades the players on their workouts and Stone evaluates the academic side.

At the end of the day, the two tally the points, giving each player as many as eight total points. Those points accumulate over weeks and months and correspond to a tier-based system of rewards and consequences. If the players want to keep their locker room stalls or wear their practice jerseys, they have to accumulate enough points.

“It really helped us this summer,” Oliver said. “Guys need to know where they’re stacking up at, especially in here. This is a work-equity environment down here and you should be graded on it. If you’re a guy that has these grand ideas of leaving here at the time of the draft, you’re going to have to work at it.”

Oliver’s idea wasn’t necessarily breaking new ground. He came up with a similar rewards-based code during his days as the Cincinnati Bengals associate strength and conditioning coach, but the outline was more scaled down in the NFL and was loosely followed by professional superstars.

Try to tell a defensive lineman making $10 million a year that he doesn’t get a locker room stall because he didn’t work out hard enough, and well, let’s just say he rolls his eyes, to put it politely. Tell the owner that his star player isn’t going to play because he showed up to a workout late and you won’t have a job much longer.

“We had a purposeful attempt at this,” Oliver said, “but it wasn’t as jelled.”

Instituting a similar, more refined plan with college athletes who are playing for an opportunity at living a dream for a future livelihood is different.

“Nothing is given to you, especially at Kentucky,” said EJ Floreal, a talented first-year walk-on. “This year, I think they’re trying to teach us that you’re going to have to work hard and earn everything or you’re not going to get anything this year. What they’re trying to do is make us work really hard so that we know that our goal is to earn everything this year, not just to expect it.”

A master chart in the hallway outside the Joe Craft Center practice gym makes it more real for both the players and the staff.

“It’s tangible,” Oliver said. “It keeps us on our toes. We have to know what we’re doing every day: the coaches, the players, the trainers and Mike Stone over in (the Center for Academic and Tutorial Services). The more that we’re all being accountable ourselves, the more things will go the way we need them to go.”

Players like Alex Poythress were graded this offseason for how they performed in the workout room and in the classroom. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

For Stone, who has a well-earned standing as the best academic adviser in the country, it streamlined his daily routine of making sure the players were fulfilling their academic obligations. That was never a problem for him in the past — the Cats have posted a 3.0 grade-point average or better in four of the last five fall and spring semesters under Stone’s watch, including a 3.4 in spring 2013 — but the code made things more efficient.

“It gives them ownership,” Stone said. “It gives a greater emphasis on their academics. They have to communicate better. They have to communicate with me every day, even the good students. Every student, whether you’re a freshman, a returning student, a student that excels in the classroom, etc., has to talk to me every day to make sure they are getting their schoolwork done. Otherwise, their grade suffers. It is attached to something they do with basketball; therefore it’s all correlated together. If you’re doing great in the classroom, somehow it correlates to you doing great on the court.”

Whether you’re a five-star recruit who would start for any team in the country and/or a bookworm who has achieved nothing but A’s and B’s, everyone has to do their jobs, every single day.

The first time one of the veterans who has a reputation for taking care of his business received a “0” underneath his name, the players knew the staff meant business. As Oliver and Stone both said, they’re not playing favorites. The Wildcat Code can’t hide you.

“The tangibility of seeing, sensing and feeling where everyone sees where you are compared to the whole team, whether you’re the star of the team, whether you’re on scholarship or whether you’re a walk-on, everyone sees that,” Stone said. “That’s a great motivating factor because we are the hardest on ourselves. Motivation is intrinsic. Nobody can motivate you like you can motivate yourself. A lot of times, when people can sense that other people can see how they’re doing, it’s the pressure from other things to make you do well. It’s like, ‘Oh, now everybody sees.’ Anybody who walks in that door downstairs sees where they rank in this team.”

Motivation by competition was certainly a desired outcome when they started the Code over the summer, but no one could predict how the players would both accept it and use it to better themselves.

By all accounts, it’s been a huge success. The tangible value of seeing how they are doing on a daily basis is not only inspiring the players to work harder today than they did the day before, it’s motivating them to do better than their teammates.

“It’s pushing us,” freshman forward Julius Randle said. “It’s helping us push each other because we don’t want anybody to outdo somebody.”

Said freshman forward Derek Willis, “Each time I walk in, it’s the first thing I check.”

Oliver said this team, with the injection of a super-talented group of freshmen with alpha-type personalities, was already a motivated group, but the Code has forced the Cats to work even harder.

“They’re an extremely hard-working group,” Oliver said. “One of the things that you have to love is you have to love the grind. I don’t necessarily think that we loved the grind last year. You have to love running. You have to love lifting. You have to love playing basketball and the pick-up games. You have to love it. I think that there’s a certain degree last year that I didn’t see, but we have some competitive guys who are digging the grind right now.”

The Wildcat Code has fostered that love of work so well that a system that was originally designed for the offseason only has continued into the fall semester.

New points will be accumulated and new privileges will have to be earned, but ultimately, what the Wildcat Code has done more than anything is breed competition. As Coach Cal often says, competition is what makes you better, and right now, the Wildcat Code is forcing a lot of improvement.

“If you embrace it and you love it, you’re not worried about the fact that you’re running or you’re lifting,” Oliver said. “That’s the grind, and everywhere that I’ve been that I’ve been successful, there have been guys that love the grind and it becomes contagious. That’s why we were good when we were good here. And when we’re bad, I’ll be the first guy to tell you that we didn’t dig the grind. The grind is everything.”