Theory: John Calipari is masterminding his own exit.
DISCLAIMER: A theory isn’t a fact, so I’m not claiming the following is fact. Just an idea.
The rumors of Cal to the NBA have been rampant since he arrived in Kentucky in 2009. I, myself, have never bought into them. Then again, I never would have thought that the Wildcats would get swept by Arkansas, be down 20 at one point to a South Carolina team who lost to Manhattan earlier this season, or be one Julius Randle put back from dropping 3 straight games. So here we are. The crazies of Big Blue Nation, not the good crazies that we are proud of, but the loud 5% who give us the bad rep have already began screaming that Cal has “ruined the Kentucky tradition with his system” (the same people who cheered him on for adding an 8th National Championship to that tradition). Before we go any further let me add this: I love John Calipari, I think he is a great coach and handles this program and its fan base better than anyone else in college basketball.
All that being said, what if, instead of in a loud rumor purported by ESPN, Cal leaves Kentucky quietly in a move that has been planned for months. Since taking over at Kentucky, Calipari has embraced his role in the program and the program’s role, not only in the landscape of college basketball, but also the lives of Kentucky fans. It’s been said time and time again how passionate Kentucky fans are about their Wildcats but it’s not that cut and dry. Unless you’ve experienced it first hand, it won’t make any sense to you. Kentucky fans don’t just watch every game, they watch previous game’s tape, and they study each move. They don’t just know the current crop of players; they can tell you how many points a high school junior in Chicago being recruited by Kentucky scored on a given night. It’s not a passion, it’s their life blood. And Cal knows that, and he loves it (most of the time).
Calipari has embraced fans in past and welcomed their lifestyle. Yet, something seems different this year. It may have something to do with the fact that last season his highly touted freshmen got bounced in the first round of the NIT (a burden which he has since shouldered himself) combined with the fact that a team once touted at 40-0 are now looking at 8 losses with two regular season games left, the last of which goes through Gainesville. If that is the case and Cal is looking inward, telling his team not to get their heads down, all the while quietly hanging his own head in private, then maybe the pressure has got to him a bit (the man won us a national championship just two years ago, he should get a little slack for a bad year). It could be a number of things, but the first sign of potential problem I have noticed is Cal seems to be stand-offish with fans for the first time since 2009.
Whatever you believe about John Calipari there is no denying that he is among, if not, the best hype men in college basketball. He knows exactly what to say to get the fans going, he doesn’t back down to the media, and he recruits like an ice salesman in Alaska. Cal knows how over the top Kentucky basketball is and he has fully embraced it. I know personally, anytime Coach Cal smiles and says his famous line, “You people are crazy” I feel good about myself and the fan base. However, something else I’ve noticed is that as this season has progressed Cal seems more and more recluse. He has missed more call-in shows than I think I ever remember a coach previously missing, and at times has skipped out on post-game interviews and his post-game radio show. He again seems to be distancing himself, delegating certain responsibilities to others.
Now, let me remind you, I am 100% a John Calipari supporter, I hope he retires at Kentucky. I have also scoffed at almost all NBA rumors…until last night. Last night in Columbia, South Carolina things felt bad from the get go and worse when Coach Cal got his first technical. You knew almost certainly that he would be ejected if things continued down that path. He jumped, and screamed frantically. When he left the locker room at the start of the second half he came out with a smile, not a happy, my kids are motivated smile, but a kind of smile you get when you say things like of course, why not? Finally the moment came halfway through the second half, Cal got ejected, said maybe two words, and turned and left, and that was it. His body language all game looked bad, but that wasn’t the most unsettling thing about last night.
Cal’s running motto all season, really his whole time at UK, is player’s first. We are a player centered program. But this season especially he has said on multiple occasions, we want to be a player centered, not coach centered, team. He tries to take any focus directed at him and place it on the players. Then comes his post-game quote released via UK, “I wish I didn’t get thrown out of the game, so that I could fight with our team…I feel bad I got thrown out of the game, but to be honest we were better when I wasn’t out there.” That last sentence is what has finally led me to this place. I had never bought into Calipari to Knicks, Calipari to Cleavland, Cal Coaches Chicago, but now there is at least a shred of doubt in my mind.
What if, Cal is ready to go to the NBA? He’s a competitor and as such I’m sure at least somewhere in his mind he wants to make up for the Nets debacle. What if the pressure of having a bad year followed by huge hype and another (at least at this moment) disappointing season has gotten to him? Here is the thinking behind this theory; as with any Calipari NBA rumors, you start with: there are going to be multiple big market NBA jobs open in the offseason. Now building off that you look at what I said earlier, he seems more drawn back, distancing himself from his team. But Cal doesn’t want to leave Kentucky high and dry, he does love it here, and he wants to be remembered fondly. So he leaves a talented roster, in most draft projections Kentucky may only lose Randle, Young, and Cauley-Stein, combined with multi-year players like Tyler Ullis and Devon Booker, and you see a team that the right coach could come in and win with immediately. PLUS if Cal does go to the NBA before another bad season then it wouldn’t “be his fault”. What if, not from the beginning of this year, but at least the last few months Calipari has been creating an exit plan? What if he’s seen the writing on the wall, and much like Batman, has decided to “die a hero” rather than “living long enough to become the villain”? Personally, I don’t know what I believe. I want Cal to stay, I love Coach Cal. But, what if?