John Calipari’s Biggest Mistake

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Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari has the best job in college basketball.  When you add in his new contract extension that pays him better than $7 million annually one can make a case that Calipari has the best job in the history of college basketball.

The Wildcats head coach is one of the greatest recruiters in college history and he competes for the top recruiting class in the nation, year after year.  Although many purists don’t like his virtual new team of “one-and-done’s” every year, the success he’s had in his very brief tenure is tough, if not impossible to argue with.

“John (Calipari) has embraced what the college basketball fan has not:  the one-and-done player,” CBS Sports announcer Billy Packer stated.

When you meet John Calipari, he looks like an executive and has a presence that few in the world of sports or business of sports have.  He’s a salesman all the way and he makes everyone he talks to feel like they’re the most important person in the room (even if it’s a young reporter on his first college beat like I was).  It’s easy to see why he’s an elite recruiter.

“Cal can talk to anyone,” former basketball coach Mark Coleman said. “He can think you’re the worst person in the world and he’ll make you feel like you’re the greatest.”

With all the good of Calipari, the recruiting acumen, the underrated X’s and O’s and his dazzling persona with the media, there is the dark cloud.  That dark cloud is the accumulation of gray area recruiting processes (if not illegal), and the result is that two of his previous employers (Memphis and UMass) have had to remove Final Four banners.

“Integrity is really lacking in college basketball,” former Indiana head coach Bob Knight said on ESPN.  “We’ve got a coach that put two schools on probation and he’s still coaching.  I really don’t understand that.”

Calipari counters his critics.

“I know I’m not a saint but I’m not the guy I’m made out to be by others,” Calipari said.

There haven’t been any real allegations yet in reference to what he’s done in Lexington, but Kentucky fans have to at least acknowledge the possibility of losing that royal blue national championship banner from the 2011-2012 season at some point. History does have the tendency to repeat itself…

All successful head coaches in the college or professional ranks are the most competitive people in the gym or field.  John Calipari is more competitive than most of those.  A high-ranking NCAA source once said to me, “John Calipari would step on his grandmother’s neck to get from here to there (two steps ahead).”

Calipari knows the stigma that follows him around in college.  A good coach, but a great recruiter who may or may not cheat to get the best players that he can’t keep.  He also realizes that in Lexington the expectation is a National Championship, year in and year out.  And with Coach Cal getting those great players every year it automatically discounts the coaching job that he’s doing and he’ll never be known as the great program builder or X’s and O’s genius like a Mike Kryzyzewski.

For a man whose mission it is to be the very best at his craft needs that notoriety and no matter how many titles he wins at Kentucky, there will always be something missing.

He needs to win at the highest level to replace the stigma of being, “just a college coach.”

John Calipari has always been able to jump ship to the next best job when the cavalry is about to round him up.

That perfect time to jump ship again presented itself just a couple months ago when the Cleveland Cavaliers reportedly offered Calipari a $60-80 million contract offer.  Calipari used the offer to leverage his way into his current contract extension which he’s obviously very happy with, but what did he give up?

John Calipari looked Dan Gilbert, we’ll call him the gift horse, in the mouth and said “thanks but no thanks.” Of course there’s the little fact that when Calipari was offered the gig it was only a possibility that the greatest player in the world, one LeBron James would be coming home.

With LeBron James, a player who could be the greatest athlete ever and has a basketball IQ unparalleled by any in the history of the game, Calipari could win NBA Titles.  Multiple ones.  He could win at the highest level and be seen as the greatest in the world at his craft, something a competitor like Calipari craves, or at least we assume.

Nobody knows more than John Calipari that he made a mistake, even if he’ll never publicly admit to it.

It’s obvious and understandable why he didn’t take the chance and return to the pros.  He has a recruiting machine at Kentucky, he makes professional money and what if LeBron didn’t come back?  He would be coaching a roster who has won the NBA Draft Lottery three of the last four years and without the ability to attract premium free agents, even if Calipari is the greatest salesperson since Zig Ziglar.

John Calipari took the easy way out and he’s going to regret it for the rest of his coaching career, if not his life.