NCAA championship game coaches share one important trait
The stage is set: The unheralded, unexpected 7 seed versus the once-overhyped, then-underachieving, and now-unexpected 8 seed. The team with an absurdly mature senior leader in UConn point guard Shabazz Napier versus the team with five hyper-talented freshman starters in Kentucky’s Fab Five Redux. A matchup that features the highest combined seeds to play for a national title, yet a storyline that stubbornly refuses the Cinderella formula, with a Kentucky team that was the preseason No. 1 and a UConn team that has three guys who played for the 2011 national title team.
This title game might be the matchup none of us expected.
Which would make it the perfect ending for an NCAA tournament that has been high on both drama and surprise.
Yet as always in the world of college basketball, it’s not the players who are the superstars. It’s the coaches. As much as we want a LeBron vs. Durant matchup in the college game — as much as we want to recreate 1979’s Magic vs. Bird season finale in today’s college hoops world — that’s not what today’s game is. The game’s biggest stars are gone before we have a chance to really get to know them. The personal rivalries don’t have time to develop into anything more than a couple of high-passion games, a few taunts and barbs, and then on to the NBA.
It’s the coaches who give the college game a sense of continuity.
Which brings us to the ultimate storyline in Monday night’s UConn-Kentucky matchup: Cal versus Ollie, the coach who has been to five Final Fours versus the man who is coaching in his first NCAA tournament, the well-traveled John Calipari who rescued Kentucky basketball from the brief-but-disastrous Billy Gillispie era versus the Huskie-blooded Kevin Ollie who replaced the legend who’d coached at UConn for 26 years — the same man who mentored him.
The two coaching storylines of the national title game are rich. Both men are expressive basketball coaches, Calipari with his kabuki-dance courtside expressions and Ollie with his barely-contained excitement that telegraphs he’d rather be on the court than beside it.
They run completely different programs. The obvious difference is Kentucky’s full embrace of the one-and-done philosophy — evidence of a coach who has adapted better to the realities of today’s college basketball than any other — versus UConn’s upperclassman-filled lineup. But it goes deeper: Kentucky had the rapper Drake in its winning locker room after the national semifinal game; UConn did not. Kentucky has the most explosive, naturally talented players in the nation, while UConn is a team built on defense, in particular the stellar perimeter defense of Napier and Ryan Boatright.
But the past several days at the Final Four, I’ve noticed a profound similarity between the two men who lead these teams: The bond they have with their players is both authentic and deep.
Go ahead. Laugh if you want. Talk about how Coach Cal and Coach Ollie are only after the money, like every college coach. Rail against the corruption you assume runs rampant in college sports, and declare that the hypocrisy of the institution has become so self-evident that the amateurism model appears to be fraying at the seams. Chuckle at the idea that Coach Cal could develop any sort of real relationship with his one-and-done players when they’re on campus for less than a year.
But let me tell you this: When you speak with the players of both Kentucky and UConn, it’s clear that these young men have all, as the coaching cliche goes, "bought in" to their leader. It’s clear that, when Shabazz Napier tells about crying on Ollie’s shoulder when Napier was struggling as a sophomore, he’s not blowing some sort of "One Shining Moment" smoke. It’s clear that, when Coach Cal teases his freshmen on stage — like on Sunday, when he poked at James Young for being the only kid on the team who was able to sleep in the aftermath of Saturday’s thrilling win over Wisconsin — "I just love sleeping," the fresh-faced Young said after a solid 10 hours of shut-eye — he cares for these kids off the basketball court. It’s clear that the one thing these players always say they love about their coach — that he’s tough and gives it to them straight up — flies in the face of the huckster mentality we project on the best college coaches.
The cynics out there scoff at the mere idea that big-time college coaching is about anything more than power, fame and money. And, look, I get it: Coach K makes nearly $10 million a year in a sport that;s ostensibly amateur. The tone is dissonant, and, frankly, the system is unfair to the athletes.
But that doesn’t mean the coaches’ motivations are malevolent. When it comes down to it, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s the relationships with players that makes coaches like Calipari and Ollie climb the grinding college coaching ladder.
For a story earlier this season, I spoke with a handful of Cal’s former Kentucky players about their relationship with their ex-coach. Here’s what Brandon Knight, one of Cal’s early one-and-done players, told me: "He treated all his players like his sons. A lot of coaches today, they don’t speak to their former players. I hear from Cal all the time."
"He’s good at finding out what makes guys tick and finding out what situations make them their best and help the team," Knight continued. "He does a great job of knowing what players can and can’t do."
This is why, throughout the incessant press conferences and open locker room time of the Final Four, both UConn and Kentucky players have sounded the same chord about their coaches: That, yes, each team always had enormous talent, but it took a special amount of chemistry to make it to the title game. That their coach believed in them more than they believed in themselves. That even in this season’s darkest moments — when Kentucky lost to the next-to-last place team in the SEC at the beginning of March, or when UConn dropped a debacle to Louisville by 33 points — their coaches continued to believe.
It’s easy to point at the vast similarities between Kentucky and UConn and their respective leaders. But at their heart, and despite all our cynicism about what college sports have become, these two men share an authentic joy at teaching their young men.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.