Why the hate for John Calipari?

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:12 PM ET

HOUSTON — John Calipari is one of the most divisive figures in college basketball.

On the one hand, he gets things done, annually landing some of the premier talent in America and has made the Final Four with three different teams, only Rick Pitino has also done that. He has also sent 17 players on to the NBA.

But, on the other hand, Coach Cal has had his first two trips to the final weekend of the NCAA tournament vacated thanks to rule violations, he has somewhat shadily hired fathers and hanger-ons of stars to his staff and he has been knocked for going after one-and-done talent, knowing full well many of his players see the scholastic side of university only as a mere nuisance, a speed bump on the way to the NBA’s riches.

A born salesman, the 52-year-old from Moon Township, Penn., has been at this an awful long time and isn’t about to change his ways, though he and Kentucky’s athletic director have said any banners earned this season “won’t come down” due to violations to be named later.

“I don’t like the one-and-done rule, never have, but my choice is to recruit players who aren’t good enough — I’m not doing that,” Calipari explained on Friday.

“My other option is to recruit the best players we have, the best students we can recruit, and then coach ’em and get ’em to believe in themselves, get ’em to reach their dreams. If that is done after a year, then I’ll deal with it.”

Calipari, a former point guard at UNC-Wilmington and Clarion State — who graduated with a highly appropriate marketing degree — was an assistant at Kansas under Larry Brown from 1982-85 and moved to Pittsburgh before taking over at the University of Massachusetts in 1988.

By 1996, UMass, led by future Raptor Marcus Camby, was in the Final Four, though the team could not win it all.

The NBA’s New Jersey Nets came calling, but Calipari flamed out trying to get through to NBA players and after a stint as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers, a humbled Calipari rejoined the NCAA as bench boss at Memphis in 2000.

Dream job

Nine successful years — and one Final Four appearance — later, he took his dream job at Kentucky.

Basketball is king in Kentucky, and Calipari is paid a king’s ransom to deliver. He makes nearly $4 million US a season (including endorsements) and the $375,000 he is due in bonuses if KU wins it all is higher than fellow Final Four participant, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart’s, entire salary $325,000.

Kentucky’s athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, makes no apologies for the massive stipend he approves for the coach.

“John is the caretaker and CEO of one of the greatest traditions in all of college basketball,” Barnhart told Bloomberg News this week.

“It is an enormous responsibility.”

Indeed.

Big Blue has not won it all since 1998, when Toronto’s Jamaal Magloire suited up for Tubby Smith and Co.

Still, under Calipari, the school spends more than any other on recruiting and he has gone 64-11 with a pair of SEC championships in that span. Solid, but if Kentucky can’t win it all in Houston, his reputation as a guy who can’t deliver will stand.

Last year, with five future first-round NBA picks including future stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. Now, they are the most talented team remaining and the favourites.

Calipari has what he strives to build his programs and dribble-drive offence around — a couple of dynamic guards, led by point guard Brandon Knight and an athletic roster that gets after the ball.

Kentucky has toppled some excellent schools to get here, but its last two opponents should be much weaker. Calipari might not get a better chance to climb the mountaintop for a long time.

When you’re paid as much as he is, happy to be here isn’t good enough.

His coaching opponent on Saturday, Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun had a similar reputation to Calipari until he finally won it all in 1999.

Validation won’t come for Calipari until he turns the trick too.

The critics are gnashing their teeths, waiting to pounce, again.

He has what he needs and what he needs is to come through with all the marbles at stake for the first time.

Nothing less will fly in the Bluegrass State.


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