John Clay: How much longer can Calipari feed the UK beast?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 8, 2014 

I would be surprised if John Calipari were to leave Kentucky for the NBA before next season.

I would not be shocked.

Rex Chapman birthed quite the firestorm before Monday night's national championship game, tweeting that, win or lose, the UK coach would become the next coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Two days before, the former Kentucky star was the color analyst on the UK "teamcast" for Turner Broadcasting. Monday, he used #donedeal and #noBS.

Chapman owns both an attention-craving reputation and NBA connections. When questioned Monday, he backed away from the certainty suggested in the tweet, but not the news nugget. He was also in a box at AT&T Stadium with William Wesley, Calipari's longtime friend and adviser.

For his part, Calipari issued a classic non-denial denial after UK's 60-54 loss to Connecticut. He said the Lakers had a basketball coach. He said Kentucky had a basketball coach. He said he wouldn't "dignify that stuff" with a response before later telling ESPN he anticipated returning to UK.

His words mean nothing, of course. Coaches say what they have to say at the time. Circumstances change.

My contention all along has been that Calipari would not leave Lexington before his youngest child, son Bradley, finished high school. Fresh off ACL surgery, Brad Calipari will be a senior this fall. Even Calipari's sharpest critics admit that the coach has never been anything less than a good family man who cares about his kids.

On the other hand, everything that makes Kentucky a great job — and Calipari a great fit — also makes it a hard job.

It's played out before our eyes. True, his aching hip is a factor. We've seen Calipari struggle to climb stairs at press conferences, then dismiss it as a non-issue. But it's more than that. The hair shows more gray, the face more wrinkles.

No wonder. There are the non-stop duties that come with the fishbowl nature of the position. When Calipari said this team was the most overanalyzed in the history of the game, it was a trademark Cal exaggeration, but every UK coach is under the microscope.

The same fans who lauded Calipari's work in March were loudly questioning his business model in February.

Plus, you'd be tired too if you were always starting over. Yes, the coach brings that on himself via his recruiting strategy, and let's see whether Calipari's critics who knock his one-and-done reliance knock Mike Krzyzewski next year at Duke.

The merits of the one-and-done aside, it means the head coach is always reopening the textbook at Chapter 1. There's little institutional knowledge, little carryover. You're not a college basketball coach; you're a freshman basketball coach.

Yet, by any measure, Calipari has done a phenomenal job. Look at his five-year scorecard: One national title, two national finals and three Final Fours. Argue that.

And that is part of the problem. If Kentucky basketball is a monster, the beast must be fed. Even John Calipari can't continue to sign No. 1 recruiting classes and get to Final Fours year after year after year.

I'm not saying this just-completed tournament run was a fluke, but when a team wins five games by 18 points, there has to be a fortunate bounce or two. Sooner or later, the bounces go awry.

So let's say Rex is right and let's say the Lakers have interest. That is a glamour franchise, down but far from out. The city will always remain attractive to free agents. And Calipari's relationship with a soon-to-be free agent named LeBron James might make him attractive to an owner like Jim Buss.

Plus, Calipari is Calipari. After dragging a team starting five freshmen to within one win of a college national championship, might now be the time to prove he can succeed in the NBA?

I would be surprised if John Calipari is standing at a Lakers press conference inside the Staples Center any time soon, but I wouldn't be shocked.

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

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