John Clay

Once again, John Calipari’s ability to adapt and change is about to be tested

The coaches remain the same, but college basketball is about to change.

There was John Calipari at Kentucky’s basketball media day on Tuesday. It was the 11th at UK for the man with a new lifetime contract. (“There’s no such thing,” Cal cracked. “They could fire me in a year and there’s my lifetime right there.”) He said he’ refreshed and ready for the start of a new chapter. He’ll also be 61 years old in February, a head coach now for more than three decades.

And Cal’s a young pup, by comparison. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is 74. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is going strong at 72. North Carolina’s Roy Williams is 69 and back for another year in Chapel Hill, dizzy spells and all.

To stick around that long, to survive that long, you’ve got to roll with the punches and adapt to change. And change is coming.

“A guy said to me (Monday), ‘Hey, that California law passed.’ And I’m like, ‘What California law?’” Calipari said Tuesday. “I have not looked at it, read it, haven’t spent any time, do not have a full view of it. So I’m not really going to say anything. And I really don’t have an opinion yet because I’ve got to digest what they’re trying to do.”

It’s unlikely a coach as well-connected as Calipari was unfamiliar with the law signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom that allows students playing college sports to strike endorsement deals and hire agents, thus challenging the outdated amateur model for student-athletes the NCAA has clung to for decades.

Thus, California is the first state in the country to create a legal right for college athletes to be compensated, starting Jan. 1, 2023. To mark the occasion, Newsom signed the bill in the Los Angeles barbershop used in LeBron James’ HBO Show “The Shop: Uninterrupted.”

“It’s going to change college sports for the better by having the interest of the athletes on par with the interest of the institutions,” James said.

The NCAA doesn’t see it that way, of course. It has threatened to ban California colleges from NCAA championships. “As a membership organization,” it said in a statement Monday, “the NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level though the rules-making process. Unfortunately, this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses, and not just in California.”

The NCAA got the “not just in California” part right. A similar bill has already been proposed in the Florida legislator. South Carolina legislators say they intend to introduce one, as well. Change comes slowly, then all at once.

Thing is, that’s not the only change on the horizon. The plan is in the works to allow high school players to enter the NBA Draft by 2022, thus ending the current age restriction that produced the current one-and-done phenomena. And no one has dominated the one-and-done mode of recruiting like John Calipari.

“My biggest concern is that we minimize and diminish education,” said the coach, who argued that a small number of high schoolers will actually enter the draft. “I believe kids should be going right out of high school, but not playing in the G League for one or two years. … And then they don’t have an education That is my fear.”

And what about fears this will all hurt Calipari’s recruiting?

“Kentucky will eat first,” he said Tuesday. “Whatever these rules are, if you think you’re hurting Kentucky, you’re not.”

What we know for sure is that it’s all going to look different, and sooner rather than later. There’s just too much momentum on the side of giving the student-athlete what it deserves — a larger piece of a very rich pie.

“And you people that know me know I will have an opinion,” Calipari said. “But I make it where it’s educated first, that I know what I’m talking about.”

And know how to change.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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