If I had a nickel for every time University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball Head Coach John Calipari has uttered his now famous line, “You people are crazy,” The basketball team would be practicing in the Terry Brown Center. I never thought that I’d see a coach have to ability to “get” the Big Blue Nation, but Coach Cal does. He understands and respects the passion of the fan base and, at times, fuels the fire. He’s a modern day PT Barnum demanding attention from fans that want nothing more to give it to him. What coach Cal has done is nothing short of remarkable.
After former head man Billy Gillispie was ushered out of Lexington, literally being chased by newsman Allen Cutler, the Wildcats were at their lowest point since the Probation Days. After the school’s first visit to the NIT in nearly 20 years and with a recruiting pipeline that was woefully dry and lacking of big name recruits, Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and school president Lee Todd took a chance on Cal, even with his less than sterling reputation. When Cal was announced as the newest head coach, I admit I was skeptical. Though never convicted or even charged with an NCAA violation, the stench of those two vacated Final Fours hovered around him. And add in Kentucky’s own history of NCAA malfeasance, I don’t think I was alone in thinking, “how is this going to work?”
Well, in a word, it worked well. Very well. In short order, Calipari put together a rock band first team. Not only did John Wall and company win, they won big and looked cool doing it. The 2009-2010 team was probably the first UK team that had real swag. There was the John Wall dance. There was DeMarcus Cousins telling the Mississippi State fans to call him. It took Cal no time to send the Cats back to the NCAA Tournament as the number one overall seed. In less than a year, he had returned the Cats to the top of college basketball. Yes, they went stone cold shooting against West Virginia in the Elite Eight, but the die had been cast; Kentucky Basketball was back.
The momentum continued the following season (2010-2011) with another group of talented freshmen including star point guard Brandon Knight. I point this team out to anyone that says that John Calipari can’t coach. For most of that year, the team looked good, but not necessarily great. And, on the road, particularly in the SEC, they were downright horrible. But, unlike most coaches, especially the big name coaches, Calipari is flexible. Once he introduced the high screen and roll with Knight and big man Josh Harrellson, the Wildcats’ offense became more fluid. And once Terence Jones got tough inside, the Cats found themselves in the Final Four for the first time since 1998, the longest Final Four drought in school history.