The Calipari Conundrum

Image #: 28595326 Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn't know what to do about UConn as the Connecticut Huskies beat the Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 in the NCAA Final Four championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Monday, April 7, 2014. credit: Stephen Dunn/Hartford Courant/MCT/Landov

Not often do basketball programs like Kentucky need to make home run hires, because when you are that good, those hires tend to fall into your lap. In 2009, Kentucky was in a spiral unlike anything the program had seen after possibly the worst run in program history under Billy Gillispie. On March 31, 2009, the University of Kentucky was able to grab the most heralded young coach of the time, John Calipari. The hire has been nothing but successful for Kentucky, but when the coach has a personality and is as outspoken as Calipari, it can also cause people to get greedy with success. After the program’s worst start to a season since 1929, many fans are not happy — rightfully so — and are experiencing what I refer to as the Calipari Conundrum.

From day one of being in Lexington, Calipari has made the program the gold standard of college basketball. He started off with signing possibly the most important recruit at Kentucky since Jamal Mashburn — John Wall. Since then, Kentucky has been fun again for the fans and as successful as any other program in the nation. They’ve been to four Final Fours, won six SEC tournaments, six SEC regular season titles, and the National Championship in 2012. Most programs would be happy with just an eighth of that success, but when in Lexington, even that’s not good enough at times. Success can help fans have a short term memory when it comes to things like one-and-done recruits, Sweet 16 exits, and an NIT trip, but with a recent “down” stretch fans are starting to become unhappy. Are fans really in the right to be unhappy or is Big Blue Nation just getting too greedy recently?

The fans have every right to be upset

On one hand, it can be said it’s fair for fans to be upset and maybe Calipari puts himself in this situation. He’s probably the most outspoken coach in college basketball and walks the line of politics and sports publicly a lot. Add in a bunch of recruits who leave after one season — whether they were ready or not — and fans should be upset with Calipari right now. 

Kentucky hasn’t been to a Final Four since the 2014-15, and even that felt like a failure to some fans and Kentucky had possibly the most talented team ever assembled in college basketball history and lost to a scrappy Wisconsin team. Since then, Kentucky has had a Round of 32, Sweet 16, and two Elite 8 exits with one being a buzzer beater by Luke Maye to knock out the Fox and Adebayo team. Mix in a tournament last season that didn’t get to happen due to a pandemic when that team was poised to make a big run, and a possible NIT trip this season, and anyone can see the flood walls about to crack on the fanbase. 

Calipari has earned a bad season

On the other hand, the fans screaming for Calipari need to take a deep breath and remember what being a bad team is really like. Since Calipari has arrived, he has a 330-69 record and arguably has been a top three coach his entire tenure, behind only Coach K and Jay Wright. No one has been to more Final Fours since his hiring, he’s out performed or performed as well as their seeding every season but two, and he’s been to two national championship games. He’s dominated the biggest rival in the program and has brought the program back to the status of elite. Fans can’t complain that the program wasn’t getting elite recruits and then be mad when they follow the mold of all those recruits and leave after one season. If you want your watermelon, then you’re going to have to eat the seeds with it, Big Blue Nation. If you’re a fan asking for Calipari to be fired, then you must answer the golden question, who can come in and replicate this success right away?

There’s still time — not much — for Calipari to savor this season and make fans forget everything. Add in the fact I expect a decent amount of players to return next year to mix with the new recruiting class, I think fans will completely forget the last two seasons. Kentucky will be back on top here soon and Big Blue Nation just needs to take a deep breath and remember the words of Aaron Harrison, “Relax.”


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