John Clay: Calipari in tune with UK fan base

Bold statements about UK program a big hit with legions of fans

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 3, 2013 

Coach John Calipari used part of his remarks at this year's Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena to fire up a fan base that roared its approval at his statements about the magnitude and impact of the UK basketball program.

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He can't take it back now, not with the way the world is today, with the World Wide Web and social media and all kinds of ways to spread information as quickly as possible. You say it, it gets heard. You say it, you own it. No taking it back.

Not that John Calipari would take it back.

"We don't just play college basketball," the Kentucky coach said during his State of the Big Blue Nation address during this year's Big Blue Madness. "We are college basketball."

Outside the boundary lines of the commonwealth, outside the rooting provinces of the BBN, that line was surely met with a mixture of incredulity and the dropping of jaws.

You can imagine how that went over in Chapel Hill, N.C. Or Durham, N.C. Or Storrs, Conn. Or Lawrence, Kan., for that matter.

Calipari couldn't care less about all that, of course. Yes, he was speaking to the recruits on hand that night to watch a flaming video board and Matthew Mitchell dance like James Brown and soak in what Kentucky basketball might be all about.

But Calipari also was speaking to the vast legions of Kentucky fans who don't care what they think in North Carolina or Kansas or Connecticut or up the road in Louisville. Calipari's grand statement was music to their ears, truth to power, the testament of faith that fills up their hearts.

You can make the argument that when the UK program was rolling back in the 1990s, Rick Pitino was more beloved. (Not the Rick Pitino of now, not the Traitor Rick in the eyes of Kentucky fans, but the Rick Pitino who brought UK out of the ashes of probation.) If memory serves, the cheers at Pitino's introductions trumped, if ever so slightly, the current cheers for Cal.

And yet no Kentucky coach might be as in tune with the UK fan base as Calipari. He is the UK coach with the gumption to say what they are thinking, believing, saying themselves.

Of course, at some point, you have to back such a statement up, and there is a feeling that Calipari seems a little more emboldened this year.

Here was a media question, or media comment, from the team's media day: "It seems like you've got some of the swagger back."

Calipari's answer: "You know, everybody keeps saying, well, I sound different."

He has different players than a year ago, better players. As we well know, Kentucky boasts one of the best freshman classes in the history of college basketball, maybe the best freshman class in the history of college basketball.

Calipari also has something he lacked last season: Depth. The coach who once said you didn't need more than six or seven players found out last season that sometimes you need more than six or seven players. You need the bench as a motivational tool. You need the competition for playing time in practice.

Or, simply put, you need the competition in practice. Calipari can push only so much. At some point, you need players to push players, to push them to heights they weren't sure they could reach. Motivational tactics help, but not as much as crashing the boards or getting down and dirty on defense against players who are capable of taking your minutes.

Should a team that will rely so heavily on freshmen be ranked No. 1?

Calipari: "I haven't seen anyone else, so I don't know."

And Calipari also said this: "I would not wish this on anybody, every year trying to coach a new team."

Given that this team has Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and plenty of others, you can just see the good people in Chapel Hill, Durham and Lawrence rolling their eyes at that one, too.

Calipari doesn't care.

Neither do the Kentucky fans.

If on Monday, April 7, down in Arlington, Texas, inside AT&T Stadium, after the final game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, John Calipari is standing on a podium at mid-court — surrounded by a team of happy players again trying to mess up his on-camera hair — and proclaims, "We are college basketball," who will be able to argue?

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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