This coming season will be John Calipari’s 10th as Kentucky coach. Only Adolph Rupp (an other-worldly 42 seasons), Joe B. Hall (13) and Tubby Smith (10) have been UK coach as long.
“You know what, that is amazing . . . ,” Calipari said this preseason. “I can remember asking Coach Hall, ‘how long a run is this?’ And he said, ‘10 years.’”
By that reckoning, 2018-19 would be Calipari’s farewell season as UK coach. But he doesn’t sound ready to leave what someday may be wistfully looked back upon as the good old days of Kentucky basketball. That he might continue as UK coach beyond this coming season (his contract runs through 2023-24) might surprise the Calipari who replaced Billy Gillispie in the spring of 2009.
When asked how much longer he expected to be Kentucky’s coach, Calipari said, “I didn’t think I’d be coaching in my 60s . . . (he turns 60 on Feb. 10). Mainly because of the pace I was going. But, then again, it took me 20 years to get a job like this. So at this point, I don’t know.”
ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla does not expect his longtime friend to leave Kentucky next spring. Calipari is a great fit for such a high-profile, all-consuming job, he said. Fraschilla echoed Calipari’s thought about having to be a head coach for 20 years to get a job like Kentucky’s.
“It’s about validation for what John has worked for his entire coaching career,” Fraschilla said. “I just don’t see him walking away. . . . He’s at a stage of his career where he’s got everything he ever wanted in a program. He’s a Hall of Famer. He’s got a national championship. He wins every year. They recruit well.”
Fraschilla also touched on the acclaim and adulation that come with being Kentucky coach. Earlier in his career, Calipari was the target of criticism fueled by vacated Final Four appearances in 1996 (UMass) and 2008 (Memphis), a media report about poor academic performance (UMass), and the embrace of one-and-done players (Kentucky). Critics likened him to Jerry Tarkanian, who was perceived as a deviant in terms of rules compliance and fealty to NCAA norms.
“John’s worn a black hat often times during his career because of the way he’s built programs from the ground up,” Fraschilla said. “And now, at least in the commonwealth, he wears the white hat. . . .
“The commonwealth wants to love their coach, and John loves being wanted.”
Fraschilla suggested that the next time to seriously wonder about Calipari retiring would be in five years.
What may keep Calipari going beyond the age 60 limit he once projected? He spoke of the impact the Kentucky coach can make. He cited the UK job as a reason he can raise money for charity by staging an annual Fantasy Camp and charge a four-figure fee for a Walter Mitty experience. And he’s twice held telethons for relief from an earthquake (Haiti) and hurricane (Houston).
If he were coaching at a lesser program, “could we have done a telethon?” Calipari asked rhetorically. “Yeah, and raised about a hundred bucks.”
Then there’s the ability to prepare players to fulfill their ambition to be in the NBA and draw NBA-sized salaries.
Of course, there’s an on-court component to being Kentucky coach. With a program striving for nothing short of preeminence, winning championships — like oxygen — is a necessity. Calipari said “outliers” may try to paint his one national championship in nine seasons as failure.
“But I don’t feel like if we don’t win a national championship, I just busted,” he said.
A fairer expectation would be for Kentucky annually contend for a national championship, he said.
“Have we been in the hunt every year?” Calipari said. “I would say every year but one. And if a kid (Nerlens Noel) doesn’t get hurt, who knows? It would have been every year.”
In Calipari’s nine seasons, Kentucky has had 35 players taken in an NBA Draft. Of those, 26 were first-round picks, and 19 selected in the lottery. That kind of abundant star power begs the question: Why hasn’t Calipari guided UK to more than one national championship?
“We could have won nine,” Calipari said. “I wish we did.”
In response to a question, the UK coach said that it did not “jolt him awake” to think of the near-misses in 2011, 2014 and 2015. He did sound wistful about 2015 when Kentucky came within two games of a 40-0 record.
“I should be John Wooden,” Calipari said facetiously. “And I should have won nine, 10, 11. But people’s opinions, that’s fine. I accept it. Maybe someone here could have.”
Meanwhile, Hall said that Calipari has earned the right to choose when to stop being UK coach.
“I think he could last as long as he wants . . . ,” Hall said. “If I was making what he’s making ($8,050,000 per season), I would last till they folded me up and put me in a casket.”
About this series
This is the first in a series of stories looking at the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team as the Cats prepare to open the 2018-19 season. Watch for more on UK in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.
Important upcoming dates
Oct. 12: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 21: Blue-White Game
Oct. 26: Exhibition vs. Transylvania
Nov. 2: Exhibition vs. Indiana-Pennsylvania
Nov. 6: Season opener vs. Duke at Champions Classic in Indianapolis