UK Men's Basketball

Should UK fans believe Calipari when he talks of retirement?

Kentucky Coach John Calipari reacted during his team’s game against the East Tennessee State in Rupp Arena on Nov. 17.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari reacted during his team’s game against the East Tennessee State in Rupp Arena on Nov. 17.

John Calipari spoke last week about how hard it is to be Kentucky’s basketball coach. He also said it would not be wise to remain in the job too long. This was:

a) A genuine reflection on how a demanding job had worn him down to the point he must consider an exit strategy.

b) A Cal-culated ploy to distract UK basketball’s impossible-to-satisfy fans should this season’s team stumble.

c) A Cal-culated ploy to remind UK basketball’s impossible-to-satisfy fans to appreciate that, as Carly Simon once sang, these are the good old days.

Whatever the reason for this self-administered career counseling, Calipari wound up a 40-minute question-and-answer session at the Lexington Rotary Club on Thursday by talking about what it’s like to lead Kentucky’s basketball program. This came without the prompting of a question from a Rotarian, which suggested it was the product of some forethought.

“I’m blessed to be able to coach here,” he said, “and I know that.”

Calipari expressed gratitude — and surprise — about ever becoming the UK coach.

“I shouldn’t be coaching Kentucky,” he said. “How did I get this job? I didn’t play for one of the greats. I’m not from Kentucky. And I had the opportunity to be here.”

Then came the part that sounded like a hint or tease that he’s thought about stepping away.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be in the seat,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s hard.”

Staying too long at any job invites trouble, he said.

“In anything you do, you try to do it too long, it never ends well,” he said. “That won’t be me, I promise you.”

Kentucky guard Brad Calipari says John Calipari has handled this year’s team differently.

Calipari even gave a tongue-in-cheek (?) sign that will tell him it’s time to leave. A few minutes before, he had told the Rotarians about going to bed earlier than ever this season because of the fatigue that came with being UK coach. Working with nearly all freshmen made bedtime even more a welcomed relief.

“It wears you out,” he said of being UK coach. “I’m in bed by nine o’clock. My wife is looking at me like ‘I’m getting younger and you’re getting older.’”

With that in mind, Calipari said his departure could be tied to his bedtime.

“When I have to start going to bed at seven, that’s when I probably know,” he said as Rotarians laughed. “It’s probably time.”

Surely no one knows more about the demands of being Kentucky coach than Joe B. Hall. With the added burden of following the revered founding father of UK basketball, Adolph Rupp, he said he faced much more stress in his 13 seasons as coach than Calipari.

Being a Kentuckian, and knowing how important the program was to fans, only intensified the strain, he said. So Calipari has the advantage of a certain emotional detachment.

Not that any coaching job is easy, Hall said. There’s an almost ceaseless demand on your time and thoughts.

“You don’t really have time to enjoy life like people who get off at five o’clock,” Hall said. “Most people leave the office, grab their golf clubs, play nine holes, come home to a good dinner, sit around and watch television.”

Not true for the typical coach.

“Every minute you’re thinking of your team, your present players, the recruiting, the public,” he said. “I could see I was missing so much in life.”

Hall retired at age 56. Calipari is 59.

Given the national championship-or-bust expectations, Kentucky’s coach is almost guaranteed to be viewed by some as a failure.

The late Al McGuire once said that being Kentucky coach was like being Wilt Chamberlain (or, if you want an updated analogy, LeBron James): “You can never hide.”

As for how Calipari handles the demands of being UK coach, Hall said, “I think he’s doing great. He’s almost a perfect fit.”

So why did Calipari talk to the Rotarians about being tired and not intending to stay on the job too long?

“I think it’s a good thing to say,” Hall said with a chuckle. “It keeps the wolves off your back.”

ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla has known Calipari for 40 years. He found it difficult to believe Calipari would walk away from the UK coaching job any time soon.

“I just can’t see John coaching anywhere else for the next five to seven years, at the minimum,” Fraschilla said. “I know he’s said he’s going to walk away before people realize it. I can’t see it.”

When asked why he could not see it, Fraschilla said, “He’s too competitive. To me, from outside looking in, for all the perceived complaining, I think John loves competition. And I think being coach at Kentucky is the best place to take on the competition.”

Like Hall, Fraschilla said Calipari is an ideal person to lead Kentucky’s program. “John is the perfect coach for Kentucky,” he said. “Fits like a glove.”

Besides the winning in recruiting and on the court, Calipari is good at making UK fans feel a part of the program, Fraschilla said.

And while he may be sleepy, Calipari is also happy, the ESPN analyst said.

“It’s not like he’s winning games and he’s miserable doing it,” Fraschilla said. “He may appear to be miserable on occasion. But when he gets in a private jet to go see the No. 2 player in the country, he’s walking in with a bazooka as opposed to a pea shooter.

“And he won at UMass with a pea shooter. Now, he’s got the bazooka.”

Rather than being put off by the demands of the UK job, Calipari is enhanced, Fraschilla said.

“Unlike most guys who wear stress like an ill-fitted suit, I think John thrives in that,” the ESPN analyst said. “I think John thrives in a little bit of chaos.”

Winning not everything?

Reader Joseph Fast applauded the kindness John Calipari has shown to his coaching predecessors at UK (Joe B. Hall), Memphis (Gene Bartow) and UMass (Jack Leaman).

“While Coach Cal certainly has more than his share of detractors, few should doubt his caring and compassionate heart,” Fast wrote in an email. “As an avid UK basketball fan for over 50 years, character on the part of coaches and players is just as important, maybe more so, than winning basketball games. …

“When I read of all the good deeds Cal’s former players are doing in their NBA cities, I have to believe that they learned that from Coach Cal in between the X’s and O’s.”

Fast said he worked in Paris for 27 years before retiring in 2014.

Positive/negative

Reader John Buker applauded the uplifting quality of John Calipari including retired former coaches in his programs.

“So often it is the negative that is newsworthy …,” Buker wrote in an email. “Someday when he moves on or retires, we will really miss all the ways he has strengthened our community with his good works.”

Buker, 64, is a dermatologist. He grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, and moved to Lexington after a 12-year service in the U.S. Navy. “The Wildcats quickly got into our family’s hearts when we moved here 23 years ago,” he wrote.

One who leads

How did Quade Green get his unusual name? His mother, Tamika Johnson, said she was looking through a book about the meaning of names and stopped at Quade. She liked the meaning: One who leads.

Sometimes unusual names can lead to childhood teasing. Not in Green’s case.

“He never said anything, whether he liked it or not,” Johnson said. “He never complained about it.”

An internet search found another Quade. Quade Cooper, 29, is a native of New Zealand who plays rugby in Australia.

Lamar Jackson

To momentarily drift into football, oddsmakers at www.SportsBettingDime.com made Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson a 9-1 third choice to be the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen was a 1-1 favorite to be the top pick. Southern Cal quarterback Sam Darnold was the 6-1 second choice.

Happy birthday

To Joe B. Hall. He turned 89 on Thursday. … To former UK sports information director Brooks Downing. He turned 54 on Thursday. … To Brandon Knight. He turned 26 on Saturday. … To Sam Malone. He turns 26 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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