It was Nov. 22, 2006 on shores of Maui in a forgettable third-place game at one of those preseason college basketball tournaments. Tubby Smith was still on the sidelines for Kentucky, seven seasons after winning a national title. John Calipari was coaching at Memphis, one year after making his first deep NCAA tournament run since taking UMass to the Final Four a decade earlier.
Kentucky fans won’t remember now, but they were saying all the things people from opposing schools said about Cal in those days. He gets all his players from the mysterious World Wide Wes. He’s slick. He’s more of a used car salesman than coach. God forbid a school with our blueblood tradition ever lowers itself to hiring someone like that.
Then the game started, and it looked a little bit like last night, when Calipari won his first national title in convincing fashion, 67-59, against gutty but outclassed Kansas.
If Kentucky fans and administrators didn’t realize it that day in Maui, watching Calipari’s athletes make a mockery of their more pedigreed program, they came to understand it over the next couple years.
The Kentucky name, the tradition, the banners, the Big Blue? They were all meaningless. Players didn’t care about any of that. College basketball had changed a lot in a decade, but Kentucky was still clinging to the past. Calipari, with a renegade reputation and an NBA-centric approach, had begun to leave those kinds of programs in the dust.
About 26 months of miserable basketball later, Kentucky finally admitted it. And nearly three years to the day after hiring Calipari, the Wildcats can finally hang banner No. 8.
“Absolutely I thought he’d win a national championship at Kentucky,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You have resources, you have facilities, you have so many things going for you there. And when you recruit the level of players they recruited and coach them the way they’ve coached them, it was obvious he was going to win a championship.”
More than any other in recent memory, this championship run will not be remembered fondly by the so-called establishment. After three empty trips to the Final Four — two of which were later vacated for NCAA rules violations — Calipari ended all doubt he could win the big one. And his team, with three freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup — all of whom are likely NBA-bound — proved that you can import a bunch of one-and-done mercenaries and still win a title.
But if you feel like rolling your eyes at anyone today, roll them at Kentucky, not Calipari.
All he’s done for seven straight seasons is recruit the best players, get them to share the ball and play ferocious defense, win a ton of games at two different schools and send a bunch of guys off to NBA riches.
A banner came down at Memphis because Derrick Rose, his prized recruit, was accused of having a stand-in take his SAT — an allegation that was never proven. Last year, UConn’s Jim Calhoun won the title a month after the NCAA ruled that his program had illegally employed a booster/agent in the recruitment of a player. Missouri’s Frank Haith — who just won the Associated Press national coach of the year award — is in the middle of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits given to his players at Miami. Kansas, the runner-up this year, was on probation when it beat Calipari and Memphis for the title in 2008.
Jim Boeheim has had a team barred from the NCAA tournament for rules violations at Syracuse. John Wooden’s nine championships at UCLA were largely won on the backs of players funneled by booster Sam Gilbert. From Jim Harrick to Steve Fisher to Jim Valvano, Calipari joins a long list of title-winning coaches who have had a black mark on their resume. If he’s the villain of college basketball, then who exactly are the good guys?
Calipari has never pretended he’s anything different than what he is. The only thing that’s changed is Kentucky.
This is a school that wouldn’t even grant Calipari an interview in 2007 when Smith bolted for Minnesota and the most pressure-packed job in basketball came open. But Calipari was too slick for Kentucky, had too much baggage, even though it was obvious by then he was building a monster at Memphis with consecutive Elite Eight appearances and top-ranked recruiting classes rolling in.
Kentucky was scared of what happened at UMass, scared of his very public affiliation with basketball maven William Wesley — also known as “World Wide Wes” — who was connected to basically everybody in the NBA and seemed to be friends with a lot of 18-year-olds who were going to Memphis.
Kentucky was so scared it hired Billy Gillispie, a hardboot Texan who was horribly miscast for a job with so much public scrutiny. But it didn’t take long for the fear to go away and desperation to set in, what with the losses to Gardner-Webb, mediocre recruits and ultimately an NIT appearance in 2008. Two years after deciding they were too good for Calipari, the hypocrites at Kentucky came begging him to take their job.
At that moment, there was never any doubt Calipari would have enough big swings at a title that he’d eventually cash one in. Perhaps that’s why Calipari wasn’t as jubilant last night as he was relieved after a tournament run that honestly seemed pretty easy until Kansas closed the gap a bit in the final few minutes.
“I feel the same as I did before the game,” Calipari said. “I don’t feel any different. I’m not going to change who I am. I’m not going to feel any different in the morning. I’m going to be the same guy. It’s over now and I can get about my business of coaching young people and not have the drama of all the other stuff.”
Calipari had to scratch and claw his way up to the top of the profession, and now he’s reached the pinnacle at one of the sport’s storied programs. But this isn’t 1970 anymore. To win a title, Kentucky couldn’t stand on tradition. It had to hire the guy it once refused to interview, had to admit that carrying Calipari’s baggage was worth more than whatever pretentiousness used to exist.
Three years later, they had a team that couldn’t be stopped. Calipari hasn’t changed since that Maui embarrassment in 2006, but Kentucky did. After ending a 14-year championship drought, nobody in the Commonwealth will say it wasn’t worth it.