There is an inherent silliness to a profession like the one that has made rich men of John Calipari and Bill Self. They spend months, even years, burning thousands of gallons of jet fuel and begging teenagers to come play for them, even if it’s just for 35 college games.
And if you’re good enough at that particular skill, you earn the label of “recruiter,” which seems like a compliment most of the time but turns into a pejorative the first time those kids you recruited lose an NCAA tournament game they were supposed to win. Then we come back every subsequent March talking about legacies and trying to distinguish between the “recruiters” and the “coaches,” as though they were two separate entities that have nothing to do with each other.
Self and Calipari are not the only college basketball coaches who’ve been pigeonholed that way for most of their careers, but they happen to be the two coaches who will go head-to-head tonight at the Superdome for the national championship.
The fact that it’s these two again is ironic, because nobody’s postseason failures have been as scrutinized or chronicled as the ones Self and Calipari have experienced. Calipari has had good enough teams at Kentucky and Memphis to win three or four championships by now but arrives at tonight’s game stuck on zero, trying to cut down the nets for the first time. Self already has his title — at Calipari’s expense in 2008 — but his legacy is still heavily influenced by four stunning upsets his Kansas teams have suffered in the NCAA tournament.
But this year should bury the perception — or even hint of a perception — that Calipari and Self are more recruiters than coaches. Because regardless of the outcome tonight, the fact that they’re coaching a championship game against each other for the second time in five years is a testament to how these two have separated themselves at the top of the profession.
Whatever you think coaching college basketball is about, whatever box you want to put them in, nobody is doing it better than Calipari and Self, and the gap between them and the rest of the field is suddenly getting pretty wide.
“The one thing about Cal that goes unnoticed a little bit, though not in coaching circle, is he recruits and coaches good players and gets them to buy in and do it his way,” Self said. “They’re unselfish and they guard, and that’s the sign of a guy who can coach. He’s a unique guy, and I mean that in a favorable way.”
“He’s done a phenomenal job,” Calipari said. “He’s another one that gets guys to buy in to how they have to play to win, and they listen to him.”
Calipari and Self are not close friends. In fact, they’ve recruited enough of the same players over the years — often under heated circumstances — that there’s even a little bit of animosity bubbling under the surface.
But they have quite a bit in common, starting with the common perception that they are excellent recruits and mediocre coaches. At the 2008 Final Four, which also featured North Carolina’s Roy Williams and UCLA’s Ben Howland, Self and Calipari were regarded as the lightweights.
The evidence, though, no longer supports that notion. Because regardless of who they’ve had on their teams, no matter how many players have left early for the NBA, Calipari and Self are operating at a pace that seems almost impossible in an era where rosters change so much from year to year.
In his last seven seasons (three at Kentucky, four at Memphis), Calipari is 238-28 with three Final Four trips and three Elite Eight appearances. Over the past eight seasons, Self is 245-43 with a national championship, eight straight Big 12 regular season titles and four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. He was also named Naismith coach of the year yesterday.
In that span of time, North Carolina, Syracuse, UConn, Kentucky (under Billy Gillispie), Arizona, Florida, Louisville, Ohio State and other great programs have all missed the NCAA tournament for one reason or another. In this era, with so many players deciding to leave early and teams having to rebuild on the fly, it’s not that hard for a season here or there to get away from even the best coaches.
But Calipari and Self have been immune to any dropoffs. And regardless of how many times they win the crapshoot that is the NCAA tournament, the fact that they’ve had chances every single year is an otherworldly accomplishment.
“I’ve always thought the most important thing were those transition years,” Self said. “If you’re like us and you had really good players, you position yourself maybe for a year or two to make a run, then you retool it and maybe make a run again. We’ve been so fortunate to be in the game every year. Coaching where we coach, the pride that exists there, it doesn’t matter what the rosters or the faces look like. The expectations don’t change.”
That doesn’t happen if all you are is a good recruiter. Because the reality is, for all the hype about recruiting rankings and McDonald’s All-Americans, a lot of times players don’t work out. Or they don’t develop as quickly as hoped. Or in the case of Josh Selby, who left Kansas after just one year, they don’t fit in and barely make an impact before going to the NBA.
Kansas lost four starters from last season’s team, which got stunned by VCU in the Elite Eight, and three of its recruits failed to qualify academically. Now it’s one win from a national championship. Calipari has turned over the bulk of his team every season at Kentucky, which means new chemistry and new personalities to manage. Now it’s 40 minutes from all coming together.
“He’s raised the bar in some ways about how hard you have to get after it because it’s been proven he’s going to get guys,” Self said. “If you’re going to compete with him, you have to have those same type of guys. Certainly in the three years he’s been at Kentucky and even before that at Memphis, nobody has recruited like he has and nobody has coached his guys like he has.”
They are slightly different formulas, the ones that have landed Kentucky and Kansas here. And maybe this game will validate one of them. For Calipari, maybe it will solidify his legacy. For Self, a second title would put him alongside some of the best ever.
But hopefully the idea that they’re nothing more than recruiters will be buried in New Orleans tonight. They wouldn’t have gotten here again if that were true. What Self and Calipari have done is what college basketball coaching is about. Tonight’s championship is a testament to the fact nobody is doing it better.