Balancing championship desires with what’s best for the players

Esteemed author and renowned motivator Zig Ziglar once said, “If you can dream it, then you can achieve it.  You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

And so believes Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. 

Calipari, who was questioned ad nauseam about his thoughts on winning a national title and the pressure surrounding those expectations during Thursday’s Media Day, repeatedly stated that at UK, it’s all about the players and helping them achieve their goals, both within the context of the team, as well as individually. 

The pressure of winning, especially at UK, doesn’t figure into the equation as far as Calipari is concerned.

“Obviously, we want to win national championships and I want to win national championships, but I’m more concerned about these players.”  Coach Cal said, “And I just think that the pressure here, whoever is in this seat, is to win. One of the things I’ll tell you is I don’t take this as life or death, and the reason I don’t take it like it’s life or death is because you die a lot. And that’s game to game.”

Instead of subscribing to the pressure to win, Calipari said he directs his attention to making his players the best they can be, with an eye cast toward helping each player fulfill his dreams. In turn, Calipari believes that will help Kentucky be the best basketball program it can be.

That’s been the philosophy of the Wildcat basketball program since hisarrival. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’m running for president because people tell you what I’m thinking or what I’m saying or what I mean by what I’m saying,” Calipari said. “When I say, ‘players first,’ during the season, we are concerned solely about our team. Yes, we are trying to get guys better and we are putting them in positions to help us win. 

“During the season, it is about our team. The minute the season ends, it is about those individual players and we help them make decisions.  We give them information so they can make decisions on what they want to do.”

National championship expectations haven't clouded John Calipari's vision of making UK a "players-first program." (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

It is unambiguously simple, really.  Calipari is fully aware that if his players perform as a unit, as a team throughout the year, and have success on the court, then their individual desires will come to fruition.

“You do right by these kids, they drag you to what you’re trying to do, which is put up banners,” Calipari said.

The players “drag” the program to greatness, not the other way around, Calipari says.  That, in a nutshell, is Cal’s coaching philosophy. 

One of the players potentially “dragging” Kentucky to a title is sophomore Terrence Jones, who passed up millions of dollars to come back to Lexington. He is focused on one thing and one thing only.

“My main goal is just to play every college game possible and make it to the national championship,” Jones said. “That’s the only goal I have.”

Another returning player, sophomore shooting guard Doron Lamb, echoed the thoughts of his teammate Jones.

“That’s all we think about right now,” Lamb said. “We’re not worrying about all the other stuff.  We’re worrying about the national championship and that’s it.”

Freshman big man Anthony Davis, when asked about winning a national title, said, “It’s a goal. You can keep focusing on your goals and you can accomplish it. We’re just trying to go out here, play hard, win games and accomplish our goals.”

But does Calipari like to hear his players talking about winning a championship before they’ve even logged a game? 

“I like our guys to have peace of mind,” Calipari said. “I want to tell them that they are a talented group and they can do what they want to do, but I want them to have peace of mind, do the best you can, be your brother’s keeper; what is supposed to happen, will happen.” 

Calipari knows, through his years of experience, that it’s not just a matter of his players wanting to win.  The players, especially a team with an abundance of heralded high school super stars, must be willing to pay the price demanded by greatness, a price which many times puts the players’ desire for individual glory firmly in the backseat.

“I want our team to be the best, but in between then — where we are now — and that kind of goal (winning a title) is a lot of togetherness and a lot of sacrifice and guys having to give up some of their games,” Calipari said.

UK senior Darius Miller knows this all too well.

“It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication,” Miller said. “There are going to be a lot of sacrifices. One big aspect is that we have to be a team and be on the same page. We have to be like a family. If people are on different pages, then it’s not going to work.”

In the end, as Miller so astutely alludes to, it’s all about knowing, as a team, they’ve earned the opportunity to compete for a championship through their hard work and dedication to team goals.

Toward that end, Calipari places a premium on his team incrementally getting better as the season progresses, putting his squad in the best possible position to cut down the nets. If they don’t win it all, it isn’t going to cause him to hang his head.

“If we are playing our best basketball at the end of the year, what happens if someone just happens to be playing better?” Calipari said. “Yeah, I’m disappointed, but I will still have peace of mind that my team did the best they could; they are playing their best and individual players are playing their best, and that’s what we try to do.

“If that turns into a banner, great. If it doesn’t, next year, here we go, let’s do it again.”