UK basketball notebook: Calipari making successor's job extremely difficult

Herald-Leader Staff WriterDecember 7, 2013 

A conversation about the greatest recruiting classes moved former UCLA standout Lynn Shackelford to ponder one of the toughest acts to follow: John Calipari's at Kentucky.

"When Cal leaves, that's going to be a tough job," Shackelford said. "For years and years, they're going to say why aren't we getting the top recruits? What's wrong?"

Calipari is making top-rated recruiting classes seem routine, if not an afterthought. Winning doesn't merely bring relief, but it's trending that way.

The idea of someone else facing such a pass/fail standard materialized recently with the speculation that the New York Knicks might approach Calipari.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a Calipari buddy of long standing, scoffed at the notion of the woebegone Knicks, an all-hat-and-no-cattle franchise, luring the UK coach away.

"He should call Nick Saban," said Fraschilla, meaning the transition from college to pros is strewn with college kings defrocked and belittled. "John's been through that. I don't think John would leave for the NBA unless he inherited a really good team."

Calipari dismissed the speculation of going to the Knicks. He'd worked 20 years to get a job like Kentucky's, he said.

Of course, Calipari won't be Kentucky's coach forever. In an interview with Bill Raftery that will air on Fox Sports 1 Monday at 7:30 p.m., he spoke of the need to prepare "for the inevitable."

That process takes time. It includes input from family and friends.

"What would my wife and I — where would we want to live?" he told Raftery. "That is my thoughts more than, all right, I want this job. No, I got the job I want.

Calipari called leaving Memphis in 2009 "the hardest decision of his life." Kentucky represented an opportunity that if not taken could lead to gnawing regret.

It's wearing effect requires a coach who can deal with scrutiny.

"You had to have been fired," Calipari of the prerequisites needed to be UK coach. "You have had to experience the media ripping the crap out of you, and not (be) the golden boy — never questioned. Nothing ever happened to you. Never coached a high-level player. And then the last part of it is you had the weakest schedules in the world (at previous coaching stops). You are going to fail here. You are not going to make it."

Fraschilla and Raftery lauded Calipari as the ideal fit for Kentucky. (Quite a contrast to the ill-fated two-year tenure of Billy Gillispie.)

Raftery noted how Calipari is a top coach as well as recruiter, a sore subject for any coach, but especially Calipari.

"Everybody thinks he's just another pretty face that recruits," Raftery said.

So why is Calipari considered merely a recruiter?

"As with Pat Riley, was it the players or Pat?" Raftery said of Riley's championship run as Los Angeles Lakers coach. "In many ways, it's harder to coach great players. They have to subjugate individual (desires). Do the right thing on a daily basis when they've been able to overpower."

Fraschilla suggested Calipari and Kentucky were the ultimate twining of coach and program.

"There's no more perfect fit in all of college basketball," the ESPN analyst said. "John relishes the attention. John relishes the stature of the program and relishes his role as head coach at the University of Kentucky."

Yet, there's a shelf life to being Kentucky coach. Ask Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith.

"I don't know how long I can stay in this seat and live," Calipari said in what sounded like a moment of candor. "I'll be honest with that one. But right now, I'm having fun doing it."

When Calipari leaves, there will be no shortage of coaches wanting to follow his act. "The line for the job is going to be out the door," said Fraschilla, who added a few moments later, "To me, he's kind of trapped in the sense he's got to make millions of dollars in a place that loves basketball. He's trapped.

"Poor guy. He gets to coach and recruit the best talent in the country in front of arguably the best fan base. Make a lot of money. And do what he's always wanted to do."

'Great crowd'

An announced crowd of 12,818 got lost in the cavernous AT&T Stadium. So the crowd had a diminished effect as Kentucky lost to Baylor Friday night/Saturday morning. It seemed most were UK fans.

When asked if a less-than-stimulating atmosphere contributed to UK's less-than-zealous performance, Coach John Calipari leaped to the defense of the fans who braved an ice storm to be on hand.

"It was a great crowd for us," he said. "I don't know how these people made it here. They must've been on dog sleds or something, I don't know how they got here. They figure out a way to get here, and I look around and the whole building is blue. It's incredible."

Family affair

Kentucky's game in the Barclays Center last weekend was a family affair for Dakari Johnson, who calls Brooklyn home. Off the baseline closest to the UK bench, there were several members of his family forming a cheering section.

Those present included aunts Nicole Johnson and Chiffon Johnson, grandmother Estelle Dean and, further up in the section, cousins Alexis Hunter and Taj Smalls.

"This is exciting," Nicole Johnson said. "He's worked so hard. He deserves this."

Nicole noted how Dakari played in the McDonald's game in the Barclays Center.

"He's home now," she said before the game. "It's time for him to show out a little bit."

Unfortunately, Dakari only played four minutes.

Verne's jewel

Long-time CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist has been lucky enough to witness some inspiring moments in sports. Or, if you prefer, he's had the challenge of instantly describing some unforgettable sporting moments.

Jack Nicklaus winning The Masters in 1986. Christian Laettner beating Kentucky at the buzzer in the 1992 NCAA Tournament. Last weekend, he called Auburn's unbelievable victory over Alabama.

Lundquist, 73, always considered Nicklaus, at age 46, winning a major the pinnacle moment of his broadcasting career. The Laettner shot was no better than No. 2.

"I initially said Saturday night that I'm a stubborn old goat," Lundquist said. "Nicklaus is going to be there forever. I'm going to be the protector of that as long as I can."

Then Lundquist, director Steve Milton and other CBS personnel began reflecting on what they saw at Auburn. Upon further review, Lundquist decided to rank Auburn-Alabama No. 1, Nicklaus No. 2 and Laettner No. 3.

"For a four-hour experience in sports, it probably had everything," he said of the Auburn-Alabama game.

Perhaps you noticed that Lundquist and color commentator Gary Danielson remained silent after Auburn won the game by returning a missed field goal attempt for a touchdown as time expired. The picture of fans rushing the field and players/coaches wearing expressions of stunned disbelief spoke louder than words.

Said Lundquist: "After 50 years in the business, I've finally learned when it's appropriate to just shut up."

Too much sports?

In a week that the SEC trumpeted its television network, syndicated columnist Norman Chad continued to lament the proliferation of sports channels. Part II of his series continued the theme of more-is-not-more.

"The wonder of it all has been waylaid by the volume of it all," Chad wrote. "There's too much. If Moses parted the Red Sea every third Friday, would it still be special? And hardly anyone wins in this sports-obsessed culture. It skews our values, sucks away our time and empties our wallets.

"On top of the joyless avalanche of games — everyone's always complaining about something — comes sports-talk radio, sports-talk TV, sportswriter shout fests, message boards, chat rooms, blogs and fan sites, 24-7 social media. We are too wired and too connected. Heck, I just sent out a tweet telling people that I am writing this sentence.

"We once were a forward-thinking nation; now, the American ideal is wrapped around the notion, 'The previous play is under review.'

"The solution? We need to step back."

Chad asked sports fans to consider the words of Howard Beale, the newscaster in the movie Network. Beale told his viewers:

"So you listen to me. Listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television's a (expletive) amusement park. We're in the boredom-killing business. If you want the truth, go to yourselves! You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. This is mass madness. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off and leave them off!"

It's an interesting thought. One of the many pleasures of being in Hawaii is how sports junkies (blush) can get their fix and it's, at worst, the middle of the afternoon. Plenty of time remains to look at the water, to smell the air, to feel alive.

But, Chad conceded, we're not setting sports aside nor turning off our TVs.

"Who am I kidding?," he wrote.

"We're trapped in our own lives — working in a box, sitting in a box, watching a box, never thinking outside of or leaving the box. We are goldfish in a bowl, with better plumbing.

"At this point, our best hope is that the afterlife's not wired for cable."

High Cotton

Bryce Cotton, who scored 23 points against UK last weekend, had moved into 21st place on Providence's career scoring list earlier this season. He passed Billy Donovan.

Cotton had 1,383 points going into Thursday night's game at Rhode Island.

Donovan scored 1,328 points for Providence (1984-87).

By the way, his father, Bill Donovan, scored 1,012 points for Boston College (1960-62).

Happy birthday

To Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan. He turns 82 today. ... To Eric Bledsoe. He turns 24 on Monday. ... To Sam Malone. He turned 22 on Friday. ... To Cameron Mills. He turns 38 on Tuesday. ... To Randy Noll. He turned 64 on Thursday. ... To Terry Mobley. He turns 70 on Monday. ... To former Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis. He turned 68 on Thursday.

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

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