Obviously, the goal is to be both. But it does explain the importance in college basketball of getting the best players. Ever since I started coaching, I have always been compared to John Calipari more than any other coach. I guess it’s because I made my name and reputation in the business as one of the game’s most feared recruiters, as John also has.
The first time I met a certain Hall of Fame coach (I’ll give you a hint: He had a cup of coffee in the Association), his wife said Gonzo reminds me of a little younger version of Coach Cal but with ethics. That told me there was no love lost with the couple and Coach Cal, but I also knew the inference that everyone to this day makes about Coach Cal’s recruiting success. The fact is, both his Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis have been vacated, yet year in and year out, he is getting the best players in America at Kentucky – the most pros, the most one-and-dones, the most McDonalds All-Americans.
With all that national attention comes a lot of scrutiny and jealousy. Questions arise about how someone could be that good. I’m here to tell you that Coach Cal is that good. I was considered at one time the best recruiter in the business as an assistant coach. That’s why Calipari is the best: He’s a head coach but still recruits like an assistant coach.
I’m not being naive when I say I believe Coach Cal is not a crook or a cheater; he’s just figured it out and has done a brilliant, masterful job at getting great players to play together on the same big stage, win and get to the NBA, which is every recruit’s dream and goal. The progression of first-rounders that began with Marcus Camby coming out of UMass has come to include John Wall, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Calipari has been constantly inventing themes, from the dribble drive offense to the platoon system. Coach Cal does not get enough credit for how good of an innovator he is and how much he has helped players make it within the rules of the system. He has to be one of the smartest and most talented coaches — especially for the modern day player — to ever come along
Coaches are a funny bunch. A good guy is a guy you can beat. Any coach that other coaches believe they can get a few wins against or do not fear in recruiting, they want that guy to stay forever. If that guy’s job is in trouble, they will vote him Coach of the Year to try to help save him.
You won’t see any coach recommending Coach Cal to come to their conference or admit he just honestly out-recruited them. This is often lost on the media. So as this Kentucky team plays for history, I’m sure you will have a lot of coaches, media members, fans and players rooting against the Wildcats. Riding in with his gaudy 34-0 record, Coach Cal will be wearing the black hat.
The last team to run the table and win it all was Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1976. The only team that has truly come close since is Jerry Tarkanian’s defending UNLV team, which got to 34-0 before being knocked off by Duke in the Final Four. These were truly dinosaur-type teams you won’t see anymore, mainly because the players on those teams were men, juniors and seniors who stayed in college before one-and-done became the norm. It was a different time and a different game.
Last year, an undefeated Wichita State team came into the tourney but lost its second game – to Coach Cal and Kentucky, who had another great young team that came very close to winning it all. The Wichita States of the world don’t play in any of the Power Five conferences and largely don’t attract one-and-done players, making it easier for them to develop a veteran team of men. But that also is the same reason they don’t win it all.
In the modern landscape of college basketball, Coach Cal comes in with an NBA front line. He’s got a trio of 7-footers in Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, a pair of 6-5 twin guards in the Harrison brothers and a few terrific pieces like quick point guard Tyler Ulis, sharpshooter Devin Booker and smooth-scoring forward Trey Lyles.
Anything can happen in March Madness. Having once being a Cinderella darling of the tourney as the coach of Manhattan and pulling off a big upset, I know that it only takes a bad 40 minutes from these Wildcats to end the run, as has happened to every undefeated team since 1976.
Because he has a reputation as a recruiter, Calipari doesn’t get enough credit as a coach, especially from the media. But Coach Cal will be a Hall of Fame coach. He has taken three different teams to the Final Four and is one of the best coaches in the game today who does not get enough credit for his schemes, strategy and game management.
I know many experts are saying Kentucky is a little vulnerable with its offense. They say if the Wildcats get in a slow-down, grind-it-out possession game, they can be beaten. I believe that they are so dominant defensively with their size and length, making it so hard to score, that they will overcome and absorb any bad shooting game or tough offensive game and still come out on top.
I believe Kentucky will run the table, sweep through the NCAA Tournament for six straight games, win it all and make history. I will be rooting for Coach Cal to do it. When I was a young high school coach at Howie Garfinkel’s Five Star Basketball Camp, I broke Calipari’s development league record by winning five championships. Garfinkel calls Calipari the JFK of Coaching, then dubbed me the Robert F Kennedy of coaching. Too bad your camp record doesn’t go on your resume.
I can’t claim that I’m super tight with Coach Cal, but I’ve crossed paths with him at times and got to compete and coach against his Memphis team. I respect him as a coach and recruiter from afar. Like myself, he has gone through much controversy, negative publicity and media scrutiny in his career but has always come out on top.
In my opinion, Coach Cal is great for our game and even greater for the kids who play for him. No one hopes this young Kentucky team can finish undefeated more than me.
Good luck coach. We will be watching.
Bobby Gonzalez, a former Division I head coach at Manhattan and Seton Hall, is a regular contributing columnist for SheridanHoops.
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