The NCAA tournament starts today, and at the top of the heap are the Kentucky Wildcats and their coach, John Calipari. The 29-year coaching veteran, who is only the second NCAA coach to bring three different schools to the Final Four (although two of those appearances have been “vacated” by the NCAA for infractions by players), still doesn’t have a national title to his name.
While it’s hardly clear he can win it all this year—the overall No.1 seeded Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship and anything could happen as the tournament heads down the stretch—some believe (Las Vegas odds makers among them) that this may finally be the year Calipari gets it done.
Despite that success, however, Calipari is far from a beloved figure in basketball. He has been called the sport’s “biggest villain” as his recruiting tactics and relationship with figures like William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley have been questioned. The slick-backed hair, brash salesman approach and richest pay package in college basketball haven’t won him many fans. Two of his players have been investigated by the NCAA, though Calipari was not individually charged. And his willingness to take on “one-and-done” players, who spend a year at school before heading off to the NBA with his blessing, has led to plenty of harrumphing on the sidelines.
It will be interesting to see whether that approach to talent management can help him finally win the championship. Despite being a team studded with raw talent, Calipari’s Wildcats have more turnover in the ranks than your average team. USA Today reports, for example, that while Syracuse returned nine players this year, Kentucky returned just three. That surely creates a different dynamic for team building than exists in other places. Some may scoff at this approach, saying it turns a university into an NBA way station, but Calipari defends it, saying it’s his job to help kids reach their dreams.
However Calipari may be viewed by others, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t good at what he does. According to his official University of Kentucky bio, he posted his fifth straight 30-win season in his inaugural year at Kentucky, the only coach in Division 1 NCAA history to do so. (One of these was “vacated” after an investigation into star player Derrick Rose’s SAT scores.) His career winning percentage is slightly ahead of Duke University legend Mike Krzyzewski, even without the vacated seasons. And I found this stat particularly striking: The number of former Calipari assistants who have gone on to become Division I head coaches, at least as of a Sports Illustrated story from last year, is tied for second to that of Arizona State's Herb Sendek. (Since that story, one of those six has left a head coaching job to be an assistant at a bigger program.)
To me, that is always a worthwhile measure of leaders’ value. What matters isn’t just how many wins they have, but how well they cultivate future talent around them. You can count that by players who’ve joined the NBA—and for better or for worse, Calipari has plenty of those—or by the number of coaches they groom. There are plenty of big-name coaches who will be on the court as the NCAA tournament begins: North Carolina’s Roy Williams. Louisville’s Rick Pitino. Duke’s Krzyzewski. And even if Calipari’s reputation has some black marks, or his approach is non-traditional, there’s little question he’s good at what he’s been hired to do: win games, and help to build future players and leaders in the sport.
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