To conclude a 37-minute appearance at The Rotary Club of Lexington Thursday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari fielded questions from the audience. The final question was pointed: “What do you do about referees that seemed to be biased against Kentucky or the Kentucky coach?”
Calipari began his response with an apparent attempt at humor.
“Did everybody hear that?” he said to appreciative laughter.
What followed made if difficult to determine if Calipari was trying to milk the moment for more laughs or keep the Rotarians entertained or airing a heartfelt grievance.
“I think we get no breaks,” he said. “None. Not one break. Everyone else thinks we get all the calls. And I’m, like, sit in my seat and see if we get calls.”
Two retired referees used words like “dishonest” and “bizarre” when asked about Calipari’s comments.
“He’s a little paranoid, probably,” said Don Rutledge, who worked six Final Fours, including the memorable 1985 Villanova-Georgetown championship game in Rupp Arena. “He was that way at Massachusetts. He was that way at Memphis. And he’s that way at Kentucky.”
John Clougherty, who worked 12 Final Four games in his career, said of Calipari, “He’s letting his fan base believe referees are conspiring against them. That’s bizarre.”
Calipari went so far as to suggest that there have been games in which Kentucky had to defeat not only the opposing players but also the referees.
“There are times we’ve got to beat eight,” the UK coach told the Rotarians, who were no longer laughing. “You know what? Let’s beat eight.”
Rutledge gave Calipari the benefit of the doubt, suggesting this might have been a coaching flashback rather than a serious accusation.
“That’s probably more motivational to his team when he says that,” Rutledge said. “He said, you know, ‘They’re all against us. The referees and the fans and everybody. So we’ve got to beat eight of them.’ And I understand that.”
The reference to competing against officiating recalled Calipari’s post-game comments after Kentucky lost to North Carolina 75-73 in the 2017 Elite Eight game.
“It’s amazing that we were in that game where they practically fouled out my team . . . ,” he said of the referees. “There was a lot of stuff that went on, and our kids fought through it. I told them at halftime, it is what it is. And you’ve got to beat who’s out there.”
Coincidentally or not, some UK fans subsequently directed death threats at referee John Higgins.
Rutledge said Calipari’s comment about having to defeat eight was questionable.
“Some people have no conscience, and some people will say anything,” Rutledge said. “I’m not accusing Calipari of being a bad coach. And he’s a great motivator. . . . But he needs to be more careful about what he says.”
Calipari told the Rotarians that Kentucky basketball could be likened to Alabama football. Each program’s history of success could impact calls, he said.
“The advantages we have, (the referees) say, ‘They don’t deserve any more advantages; you have all the advantages,’” Calipari said.
When asked his reaction, Clougherty said, “I’ve always had a measure of respect for Calipari, and his success. But if his attitude and his belief is referees are always going to hose them because they’ve had success, I just don’t buy it. And John Calipari is so far off-base that I’m losing respect for the guy.”
In his coaching career, Calipari has gained a reputation for speaking candidly. He seems to enjoy the persona of unabashed and fearless truth-teller.
The retired referees said that Calipari’s comments Thursday about referees warranted some show of disapproval from the Southeastern Conference.
“If I’m the supervisor of officials, I’m making a call to (Calipari),” said Clougherty, who added that the SEC’s Coordinator of Men’s Basketball Officials, Mark Whitehead “has got to be on the phone. First of all, Mark Whitehead calls the commissioner and says, ‘My next call, commissioner, is to John Calipari.’”
Of Calipari’s comments, Clougherty said, “I don’t think that’s something that you just do not address.”
A text message to Whitehead was not answered.
When asked for reaction, SEC Associate Commissioner for Communications Herb Vincent wrote in an email, “Comments from a Q&A at an event like this are not something we could comment on.”
A lack of a response could embolden a coach to continue such criticism of referees, Clougherty said.
“He wouldn’t have said it if his hand had been slapped a time or two when he talked about officiating,” Clougherty said. “So he thinks he can do it.”
When asked for an update on Dontaie Allen, Calipari said the freshman had not yet practiced and had texted the UK coach Wednesday with a request to work out with team managers.
“He’s really falling behind, and it’s hard,” Calipari said. “He’s a great kid. I’m hoping he’s healthy enough to get on that court.”