After losing 93-86 at Kentucky on Saturday, Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams piled on the praise.
“I love Coach,” Williams said. “Early-entry Hall of Famer. That’s only happened six times in the history of the game. The guy’s still coaching and he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame. I have the utmost respect for him.”
He was talking about Kentucky Coach John Calipari.
“It’s the best job in all of basketball at any level,” continued Williams, “and I don’t think there will ever be another head coach do a better job at the best job than Cal.”
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It slipped under the radar recently that Calipari won his 700th game on the court — excluding those NCAA “vacate” rulings — when UK defeated UIC on Nov. 26, making him just the 39th coach in college basketball to do so.
Calipari’s record at Kentucky: 258-54. His home record: 142-6. His record on the road: 88-37. His record at neutral sites: 67-15. His record against Associated Press ranked teams: 50-23.
In the past eight years, Calipari has coached Kentucky to six Elite Eights, four Final Fours, two national championship games and an NCAA title in 2012.
The thing is, while winning is certainly the most important aspect, there is more to being the University of Kentucky basketball coach than wins and losses. To me, that’s what Williams was talking about. And Buzz might have hit it on the button.
Over the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, as the public address announcer proclaims in Rupp Arena, the most successful basketball coaches at Kentucky have been the ones who either fit or were slightly ahead of their times.
Take Adolph Rupp, the man who got it started. At a time when Henry Iba was playing a slowdown game, Rupp introduced the notion of racehorse basketball. His best teams were magical passers — see Fabulous Five and Rupp’s Runts — who ran the fast break to perfection. It’s how he won 876 games and four national titles.
Take Rupp’s successor, Joe B. Hall. At at time when the program desperately needed to be integrated, Hall did so without fanfare or friction. He introduced more modern training techniques. He recruited nationally. He also went 297-100, reached three Final Fours and won the national title in 1978.
Take Rick Pitino. Whatever you think of him now, Pitino rescued the program from the dark days of NCAA probation. With his full-court press and three-point shooting, Pitino was a revolutionary who made Kentucky basketball fun again. And it won again, going 219-50 with three Final Fours and a national title in 1996.
Take Tubby Smith. He was not quite as successful as his predecessors, going 263-83 with just one Final Four appearance (the 1998 national title). But Smith was not only UK’s first black head basketball coach, he was as personally well-liked as any coach who has ever worn a whistle at the school. A decade after his departure, that still remains the case.
Now take Calipari. In this time of the 24/7 sports cycle, fan bases can tire of its head coach quickly, even a successful one. And no doubt there are a few in Big Blue Nation who grumble a little more than they did before about Calipari’s constant salesmanship, his one-and-done emphasis and how all those NBA Draft picks have produced just one title.
Yet, no UK coach has embraced the job the way Calipari has embraced every aspect of the job. Among coaches, he’s a social media pioneer. He’s the public face of the program. (He almost lives downtown, for heaven’s sakes.) He’s revered its history and former players.
He was so far ahead of the recruiting curve, competitors have adopted his approach. And despite practically a new roster every season, he keeps winning, including this year at 9-1.
“I love their team,” Williams said Saturday.
I don’t know when Calipari’s time at Kentucky will end, but I do know I wouldn’t want to follow him.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. UCLA
4 p.m. Saturday in New Orleans (CBS-27)