John Clay

Even with return to reality, John Calipari’s still the perfect coach for UK

In the case of John Calipari’s new “lifetime” contract with the University of Kentucky, two opposite statements can still be true.

It is true that the Kentucky basketball program has slipped slightly from the ridiculously high bar Calipari set the first six years of his tenure in Lexington.

As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out Monday, from the 2009-2010 season through the 2014-15 season, Kentucky posted a winning percentage of .833, went to four Final Fours, won a national title and spent a combined 32 weeks atop the AP’s College Basketball Top 25.

The last four seasons, UK has a winning percentage of .777, has not been to the Final Four or won a national title, and has spent just four weeks atop the AP Top 25.

I think that’s known as regression to the mean.

And yet it’s also true that there is no better coach for this Kentucky basketball program than the current Kentucky basketball coach, a fact both parties confirmed Monday with the announcement of a deal that keeps Calipari at Kentucky until he retires.

This was supposedly in response to reports of an offer UCLA sent Calipari’s way, which happened to surface after No. 2 seed UK lost to No. 5 seed Auburn in the Midwest Region finals. On Sunday. Nothing better to deflect a little criticism of the head coach than reports he might be hired away.

Calipari was never going to UCLA. He’s way too smart for that. At Kentucky, you are at the center of the basketball universe, everybody’s Super Bowl. At UCLA, you are far, far down the list of Los Angeles priorities, behind the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Clippers, the Angels, the Kings, the Rams, the Chargers, USC football, etc. Have I left anybody out? Oh yeah, the beach. And Hollywood.

As basketball writer Sam Vecenie tweeted Monday, “Calipari is hilariously good at this. He convinced Kentucky to give him an extension after UCLA offered him the opportunity to take a pay cut.”

Not just an extension, but a “lifetime contract” extension. That reminds me of the late, great Jim Valvano, who won a national title as North Carolina State’s coach in 1983 and was fired in 1990. Valvano wrote a book titled: “Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead.”

“Lifetime contracts” are for show. Nothing more, nothing less. Contracts are made to be broken. But they are a show of support to prospective recruits, to grumbling fans and to a national media that was paying attention to those grumbling fans, or those on social media.

Which returns us to our initial statement of truth. Kentucky wasn’t the only higher seed to lose a regional final. No. 1 Gonzaga lost to No. 3 Texas Tech. No. 1 Duke lost to No. 2 Michigan State. Nor was UK the only blue blood to miss out on Minneapolis. This will be the first Final Four since 2013 and just the second since 2007 to not include Duke, North Carolina, Kansas or Kentucky. (That sigh you just heard came from the corner offices at CBS and Turner.)

So after four years without a Final Four, a program tweak (or two) is in order. More experience on the roster? More grad transfers? More free-throw shooting drills? Nothing big, mind you.

And who’s better at tweaking than Calipari? He’ll figure it out. Whether it’s recruiting, or marketing, or strategy, he’ll be out front. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again.

I remember the day after Calipari was hired in 2009. The new coach spoke to some boosters at a private gathering that night. The next morning, at a football scrimmage, I ran into UK Associate AD Rob Mullens, now the AD at Oregon. I asked Mullens how it went the night before.

“It couldn’t have gone better,” Mullens said. “We’ve hired someone who’s been preparing for this job his whole life.”

That’s why if you’re Kentucky, you want John Calipari as your basketball coach, for a lifetime.

John Calipari at Kentucky

2009-1035-3Elite Eight
2010-1129-9Final Four

2014-1538-1Final Four
2015-1627-9Second round
2016-1732-6Elite Eight
2017-1826-11Sweet 16
2018-1930-7Elite Eight
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