In Defense and Praise of the Already Legendary John Calipari

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Many thanks to Clay for allowing me to pen this guest column.  Over the years, I, like many of our Vanderbilt Law School colleagues, have been impressed with Clay’s unique perspective in the world of sports and social media.  But on Friday Clay made a bold statement, even for him.  He opined in response to a question from an Indiana fan named James that Hall of Famer and National Championship winner John Calipari is merely a “pretty good” coach. Let’s count the ways James and Clay are wrong.

In his seven years as UK’s coach, Calipari has redefined the standards at a program that set the standards. The irony that an Indiana fan asked Clay the mailbag question cannot be overlooked, as Indiana has appeared in exactly one Elite 8 in the last 23 years. For a fan of a program that carries that recent resume to suggest Calipari has underachieved during his time at Kentucky demonstrates a failure to acknowledge what most accurately constitutes excellence in college basketball — appearing in Final Fours.  

Making a Final Four just once provides a program with momentum that can last for years and memories that will last a lifetime.  Calipari has managed to give UK fans four such seasons in the last six years.  You don’t reach such heights by routinely “choking in big games,” as 2011 Ohio State, 2011 North Carolina, 2014 Wichita State, 2014 Louisville, and 2014 Michigan, among others, can attest.  Making a Final Four on multiple occasions is the ultimate validation that a program has the talent and coaching to win championships.

There is no logical critique of Calipari’s resume.  Instead, James, Clay, and others who dislike Calipari operate under the premise that Calipari should be graded differently because he successfully recruits top players.  Of course, in college basketball, it is the coach’s job to recruit the best talent and to create a culture in which that talent can flourish.  As Ben Simmons can attest, a player cannot simply go anywhere and expect a coach to maximize his abilities.  Calipari molds his team to his personnel, highlighting their individual strengths and placing his kids in a position to succeed at Kentucky and at the next level.  To do this, he has to take care to find not only the best players, but the best fits for Kentucky’s unique program.  He does not have the luxury of missing on recruits and remaining elite, unlike high-level college football programs.  

Calipari’s recruiting acumen has changed the identity of Kentucky’s program.  Frankly, Kentucky was in need of a jolt when he arrived in 2009.  At that time, the Cats had recently missed on a number of high profile recruits, most notably Tyler Hansbrough.  Calipari has changed UK’s culture and has made it THE premier destination.  During Calipari’s tenure, Kentucky fans have had the pleasure of watching well over 20 NBA players pass through Lexington.  This is a more than reasonable tradeoff for being unable to watch as many four-year players as most programs enjoy.   

Clay notes Calipari has been a head coach for 24 years (only seven of which were spent at a program that realistically competes for titles absent a legendary coach like Calipari) and has one national title to his name, as if that is some sort of insult.  (How many times do people make that criticism of Tom Izzo, who won his one and only national title 16 years ago?)  Just review this list of college basketball head coaches to win a national title.  With the exception of Kevin Ollie (cue the Calipari choked joke here) and maybe a couple of others at the most, show me the championship coach in the modern era who hasn’t had an elite career.  Almost without fail, coaches who win national titles are elite.  And Calipari is more elite than nearly all of them.  

One of those coaches is Tubby Smith.  Clay compares Calipari to Tubby Smith, again as if that is some sort of insult.  Tubby was a well above average regular season coach, even by Kentucky standards, for the first eight years of his 10-year tenure.  The following were UK’s seed lines in the NCAA tourney during his first eight years:  2, 3, 5, 2, 4, 1, 1, 2.  For eight straight years, Tubby fielded a top 20 team, and for five of those eight years, he fielded a top eight team.  That level of consistency speaks volumes, even by Kentucky standards.  (James, he also went 8-2 versus Indiana).  

But Calipari has far outpaced those already high standards by any reasonable measure.  In fact, Calipari’s 82% winning percentage during his time at Kentucky has translated to him becoming the second-fastest Division I men’s basketball coach to reach 200 victories at a single school, a distinction he attained early in his seventh year.  If only other coaches could underachieve so well.  By contrast, Tom Crean might reach 200 wins in his 11th year at Indiana.

And Calipari’s historic success has continued in March.  Of course, the reason Tubby is not remembered as fondly as he should be by many Kentucky fans is due to nine straight years in which he failed to make a Final Four.  Again, this is because the standard by which greatness is measured in college basketball is reaching multiple Final Fours.  It is thus quite the understatement for Clay to opine Calipari has had “somewhat better success in the NCAA tournament” than Tubby.  He has been Mr. March, only missing one Final Four prior to this one in the last five years.  That is arguably the gold standard in the 2000s for a run of sustained, multi-year dominance. 

Calipari’s dominance has been so great, in fact, that Clay, like many others, attempts to minimize it not only by diminishing Calipari’s on the court achievements in light of his recruiting successes, but also by assuming, without basis, Calipari’s work is tainted.  Clay even erroneously states Calipari’s teams have had three Final Fours vacated.  Of course, neither occurred at Kentucky, and Calipari was not implicated in either incident, so it’s not something I, nor any other Kentucky fan I know, worries about at all, let alone on a “razor’s edge.”  I won’t pretend to know the underworld of recruiting, but I’ve always found it difficult to believe Calipari has ever recruited in a manner markedly different than other top coaches, particularly when he is under such a microscope.  He’s just better at it than your coach.

In fact, there is no doubt Calipari is at the top of his profession, as further evidenced by his induction to the Hall of Fame last year at the relatively young age of 56.  The question is simply, how elite is he?  There will be many, like Clay, who would not even think to consider him in the same breath as someone like Nick Saban.  In that regard, it is important to understand another premise of sports and life:  random luck and chance often shape our perception of reality.  Calipari has one title; Saban has five (four at Alabama).  It is thus almost impossible to realistically argue Calipari is superior in his sport than Saban is in his.  But is it really “indisputably dumb,” as Clay put it, to argue they are similar?

After all, it doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario where the following three moments break favorably for Calipari:  (i) Mario Chalmers misses the game-tying buzzer beater in the 2008 title game; (ii) DeAndre Liggins makes a three in the waning seconds of the National Semifinal against UConn in 2011; and (iii) the referees don’t miss a blatant shot clock violation in the closing minutes of the National Semifinal against Wisconsin in 2015.  In that scenario, Cal possibly (probably likely) has four titles and the first undefeated season in college basketball in nearly four decades (I’m guessing James from Indiana wasn’t alive to see his 1976 Hoosiers).  Is he really any worse of a basketball coach because these things did not happen?  Doesn’t the fact that Calipari put UK in these positions so frequently in the recent past strongly suggest he is likely to do so again, where luck might break UK’s way?    

Saban, meanwhile, has won four titles at Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015).  He has produced a number of outstanding teams, runs an exemplary program, and, as Phyllis from Mulga can attest, there is no end to Alabama’s domination in sight.  And I’m certainly not the one who prematurely declared Bama’s dynasty to be dead last September.  

But even the most ravenous Alabama fan would have to concede the Crimson Tide has benefitted from a lot of random luck and chance along the way to winning its four most recent titles, including: (i) Colt McCoy’s injury in the first quarter of the 2009 title game; (ii) an Oklahoma State/Iowa State game in late 2011 in which Oklahoma State, undoubtedly affected by the plane crash in which four members of the OSU community were tragically killed, gagged away a 17-point lead and missed a fairly short field goal near the end of regulation, thus allowing Alabama to have a rematch with LSU; and (iii) Ohio State receiving a bowl ban in 2012 (which deprived us all of what would have been the worst national championship game of the BCS era versus Notre Dame).  In a world where those things happened, Nick Saban may have finally “broken through” at Alabama with the recent win over Clemson.  But would Saban be any worse of a coach if these events broke against his teams?  

Sure, these things didn’t happen.  And there will be those that cling to the simplistic analysis of multiple titles versus one.  But all a fan of a top-tier program can reasonably ask is that a coach put the team in a position to win titles.  Sometimes a team gets the breaks; sometimes it doesn’t.  Only rarely is a team so dominant that no breaks are needed.  (See 2012 Kentucky, you remember them, don’t you, James?)

So keep doing what you are doing, Coach Cal.  Keep giving college basketball’s best fan base special seasons while your peers fail to keep up.  Fortunately, for all Kentucky fans, Hall of Famer John Calipari is only 57.  There is a good chance he will coach until his mid-to-late 60s, win another national title or two, and add five or six more Final Four banners to Rupp Arena.  I can assure you, Clay and James, it will be well “worth it.”   

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.