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I’ve put off writing this for hours, waiting for an announcement from UK as to who their next coach is. All indications is that by the time this paper goes to print Tuesday night, John Calipari of the Memphis Tigers will be named new head man for the Wildcats.
Count me among those who are hoping those rumors are (were) wrong.
I’d heard his name mentioned for weeks as speculation grew that Billy Gillispie would be out at season’s end. Each time the name was mentioned, I cringed a little, knowing that UK needs to take the high road on this next hire, and avoid even the slightest appearance of a ‘win-at-all-cost’ philosophy in selecting the new coach.
Calipari’s programs have not been free from controversy, either at Memphis or at UMass, where the school’s 1996 Final Four appearance has since been vacated from NCAA records because of star player Marcus Camby’s relationship with a pro agent while he was still enrolled at the school.
There has been no shortage of rumors, allegations and stories about other recruiting shenanigans during his tenure at both schools, and that’s not what the University of Kentucky, with its own spotty past, needs at this time.
But even more than those allegations, some of which may or may not be true, what concerns me is the type of program UK will become with Calipari at the helm.
Watching Memphis play and you get the feel that his style is simply asphalt on hardhood. It’s a lot of one-on-one showmanship, which given the Tiger’s personnel and their weak Conference USA competition, they’re capable of winning that way. I’m not sure Kentucky fans who have grown accustomed to good teams as much as they have good players, will tolerate such individualism.
Big Blue Nation also likes to foster relationships with the players, relationships that are developed by watching these young men play for three and four years, watching them mature as players and individuals. Calipari seems to recruit a lot of players whose intent is to use the school as an NBA proving ground for one or two years and then depart for big bucks.
As a lifelong Kentucky fan, I want players who can appreciate the honor of wearing the blue as much as they long for playing for the green. In return, most UK players seem to revel in that love affair and it becomes reciprocal. Look at the former players who have had success in the NBA, but return to Lexington or at least maintain very close ties to the program. Guys like Sam Bowie and Kenny Walker, neither of whom grew up in Kentucky, have made it home and stay in close contact with the fans and the program. I wonder if that will continue with guys who come for one year before leaving for the money?
Contrary to popular opinion, Kentucky basketball is not just about winning. It’s about a love affair an entire state has with its team. Over the decades, as Kentucky continues to be perceived to be behind times, impoverished and often unfairly stereotyped by many, we cling to something we’ve proven to be good at. The guys who have the honor of wearing our name across their chest need to understand that their efforts are more than just a stepping stone to the NBA. I’m not sure a player can comprehend that in one year.
Calipari may be hired today and may prove to run a clean, respectable program that all of Kentucky can be proud of. I can only hope that’s the case, but I really feel UK can eliminate some risk by going in another direction. I hope they will.