UK notebook: Calipari, Saban demand rare brand of excellence

Herald-Leader Staff WriterFebruary 25, 2012 

Earlier this winter, Kentucky Coach John Calipari expressed his admiration for Nick Saban and Alabama's national championship football team. Attention to detail and execution led Calipari to offer the Tide as an example for UK's basketball team to follow in its own championship quest.

Saban, who took a congratulatory phone call from Calipari after Alabama's title game victory over LSU, considers it a form of professional courtesy.

"Everybody has an appreciation for a high standard of excellence and seeing people play to that standard," Saban said last week. "It's not about the potential you have. It's about how you perform to it."

Every coach seeks unity of purpose and what Saban called his team's "relentless competitive attitude." Saban noted how Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant seeks to develop those attributes from Alabama's basketball team.

So when Alabama's football team exhibits those qualities, other coaches see a teaching tool.

"Everybody wants to capture it and try to use that example to show their guys," Saban said. He suggested a visual picture is worth many words of coaching demands.

"There's no entitlement," Saban said. "There's no scoreboard. There's no change in how you play."

This hit home for Calipari late in the fourth quarter of Alabama's championship game victory over LSU. Ahead 21-0, the Tide was all but assured of victory. Yet, a mistake — actually, Alabama's first and only penalty in the game — brought emphatic correction from Saban.

"Absolutely I remember it," he said. "As much as any play in the game."

Saban had called for "punt safe," meaning the Tide simply had to make sure LSU punted on fourth-and-10. Blocking the punt, even attempting to return the punt, were unnecessary extravagances.

Yet, an Alabama player jumped offsides.

"You're always trying to coach your guys to play to a high standard and play smart and do the right thing and make good choices," Saban said. "That's the discipline you need to have."

Saban acknowledged that perfection is unattainable. "There's human error in everything you do," he said. But teachers, coaches, parents seek the best of their pupils, players, children.

"What part of not doing it right is OK?" he asked.

Complacency is an opponent for all coaches.

"It's human nature to be average," Saban said. "It's human nature to survive.

"It's not human nature to win a championship. That's not human nature. That's special. And you have to have special people to understand that to be able to do that."

The score doesn't matter. Neither does the opponent. Nor does a 21-0 lead with a few minutes left.

The kind of exceptionalism that Kentucky basketball claims for itself is required.

"You can't be like everyone else and do it," Saban said of winning championships. "So if you're going to stand around and say, 'They do it that way over there,' we ain't trying to be like them.

"That's what you're fighting."

Player/commissioner

Alabama Coach Nick Saban, 60, continues to play basketball in what he called a "noon-time league." Members of his coaching staff also participate.

When asked if his role was scorer, passer, defender or something else, Saban said, "I'm the commissioner. You've heard of player/coaches.

"I'm a player/commissioner. I pick the teams. I put the best guys on my team. I pick the guy who guards me on the other team and I call all the fouls.

"You figure it out."

Seeking fairness

When SEC athletics directors meet Wednesday in Nashville, Scott Stricklin of Mississippi State will pitch a back-to-the-future idea. He'll propose the league return to two divisions in men's basketball.

Stricklin, who once worked as UK basketball publicist for five seasons, will base his argument for divisions on a quaint notion: fairness.

"The more teams you have in a league, and when you don't play a true round-robin, you just open up more chances for inequity in scheduling," he said.

Of course, the SEC adds Missouri and Texas A&M next season. This presents a Goldilocks scenario: A single round-robin schedule of 13 league games is too few, a double round-robin of 26 teams is too many.

The league seems set on 18 games as — ahh — just right, although Stricklin's former boss at UK, Mitch Barnhart, will make the case to keep the SEC schedule at 16 games. Unlike its brethren, Kentucky's non-conference schedule has enough heft not to need the RPI boost that comes with league play.

If, as widely expected, the SEC goes to an 18-game schedule, the problem is how to determine which five league opponents to play home-and-home in a season and which eight to play only once. One team might have, say, UK, Florida and Vandy among its home-and-home opponents, while another might have, shall we say, only lesser lights.

"That's not fair," Stricklin said. "That's inequity."

To Stricklin's credit, he's not only thought of the problem, he's also pondered possible solutions.

How about following one of the NFL's most famous scheduling models, he said. Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle devised a so-called "weighted schedule" in which the higher you finish in the standings one year, the tougher your schedule is made for the following season. So Kentucky would face the presumed better teams' home-and-home in this scenario.

"At least there's some rhyme and reason to who's getting what schedule," Stricklin said. "It's not just luck of the draw. And luck of the draw is a crummy way to determine some pretty important things."

As Stricklin saw it, the SEC schedule is an important thing.

"We can't just shrug our shoulders and say, 'That's what the computer drew up,'" he said.

SEC title?

UK Coach John Calipari downplays the importance of winning the league. The focus is March and the NCAA Tournament, he said.

This echoes a famous moment when Eddie Sutton coached at Kentucky. Fans met his desire to create rings to commemorate an SEC championship with surprise, if not disdain. Of course Kentucky won the league.

But winning the SEC championship, and in the process forming an equitable schedule, means something to Mississippi State Athletics Director Scott Stricklin.

"Growing up in the South, 'SEC champion' means a lot to me," he said.

Longhorn Network notes

Peevish concerns about the NCAA prohibiting the televising of practices after Kentucky staged such an event were unfounded. Uninformed, too, given ESPN's presence at Texas.

The so-called Longhorn Network, which could be called ESPN-Austin, was created and now run by the all-sports network. ESPN moved a satellite headquarters about five blocks from the Texas campus.

ESPN, er, the Longhorn Network runs shows with Texas football coach Mac Brown three times a week. That's not counting twice-weekly telecasts of practice.

So far, Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes has resisted requests to air his practices or do shows.

The NCAA did prohibit the televising of high school games in which Texas-bound prospects participated.

It seems a small price to pay in a deal that will bring Texas $300 million in the next 20 years.

Level playing field

Reader Dan Farley scoffed at the notion of the NCAA seeking a level playing field for all programs.

"If the NCAA truly wants a level playing field for teams, then how can Wildcat Lodge or Wildcat Coal Lodge (gag) exist?" Farley wrote in an email. "So much for the the student-athlete concept.

"I say let them live in dorms or apartments like student athletes at other schools."

Farley, 69, grew up in Princeton, Ind. A lifelong Indiana fan, he also watched UK games. He's lived in Lexington since 1971.

'Man up!'

UK Coach John Calipari doesn't sneer at those who question the SEC/ESPN Thursday-Saturday schedule. But he comes close to sneering at the thought that Thursday-Saturday is too demanding. (Actually, the argument is that it's unfair if the Thursday-Saturday schedule isn't evenly divided, but that's another story.)

It would seem syndicated columnist Norman Chad (yes, the poker guy) might sympathize with Calipari's view.

After noting the complaints about the NBA's compressed schedule, Chad wrote, "I don't recall Ethel Merman or Bernadette Peters ever complaining about back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back performances. MAN UP!"

Dontae Jones

Former Mississippi State star Dontae' Jones took a bow before the Bulldogs played UK last week. It was the first State home game he'd attended since he played for the Bulldogs in 1995-96.

Jones' signature game came against Kentucky in the 1996 SEC Tournament finals. His 28 points led State to a victory over No. 1 UK.

"We'd already played them before," he said. "We knew we could compete with them."

Still, it was a daunting challenge. Jones recalled telling his teammates before taking the court, "We got ourselves into this mess. Let's get ourselves out."

It took an almost otherworldly performance to beat that UK team. Jones delivered it.

"Probably the best game I ever played," he said. "All the stars were aligned."

Jones, 36, hopes to complete work toward a degree and enter coaching. "That's a way to come full circle," he said.

'Bad call'

Mississippi State fan Cindy Akins brought a sign that read "Bad call" to the Tuesday game against Kentucky.

Another fan saw the sign before the game and told her, "You'll probably need that sign a lot tonight."

To which, Akins said, "Absolutely."

Akins, 56, said she has brought the sign to State games for the past 10 years. The sign came in particularly handy when the Bulldogs played UK the last two seasons, she said.

"The last two times we've played, it's been because of bad calls we lost, in my opinion," she said. "So I'll definitely need my sign."

When asked how often she holds up the sign, Akins smiled and said, "Just about every time they make a call."

Akins, whose husband, Richard, is the strength coach for Mississippi State's team, noted that on the flip side of her sign was the message "Good call." Yes, she raises that side of the sign, too.

"If the Kentucky coach is fussing about a call, I'll show him it was a good call," she said.

She and her husband are 1976 Mississippi State graduates, Akins said. They worked as athletics dorm "parents" for six years beginning in 1982.

Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury knows about the sign, Akins said.

"He just says to bring it," she said. "'We need all the help we can get.'"

Davis' SEC feat

In the past 15 years, there have been four 25-point, 10-rebound, five-block performances in an SEC game. Anthony Davis has two of those, including Saturday against Vanderbilt, according to Brett Edgerton, men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com.

Jai Lucas

Former college and NBA star John Lucas attended the UK-Mississippi State game. He said his son, Jai Lucas, is playing in Latvia. The younger Lucas, who played for Florida and Texas as a collegian, hopes to get an invite to an NBA camp next fall, his father said.

Happy birthday

To Tayshaun Prince. He turns 32 on Tuesday. ... To Billy Packer. He turned 72 on Saturday. ... To Chuck Aleksinas. He turns 53 today. ... To Joey Holland. He turned 57 on Saturday. ... To Marquis Teague. He turns 19 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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