On Monday, April 14, University of Kentucky head men’s basketball coach John Calipari began his whirlwind media tour to promote his new book, Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out. And, as he promised during the Wildcats’ near miraculous run to the NCAA title game, Coach Cal finally revealed what his infamous post-season “tweak” was. As he told Dan Partick on the latter’s radio show Monday morning, his supposed tweak was to get starting point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more. It seems pretty simple, but was it? Was that all the “tweak” was, to have his point guard focus more on running the team?
John Calipari is a salesman. John Calipari is also a very good basketball coach. In today’s sports climate, any successful coach, particularly in Lexington, needs to be able to wear both hats and do both functions very well. Cal has to sell kids on his program and the university. He’s got to sell the fans and alumni on his vision for the Wildcats, year in and year out. And he has to sell himself and the program to the media. Few coaches demand and court the media spotlight like Calipari does. As hip hop legend Tupac once rapped, “All Eyes on Me.” What gets lost with all of Cal’s bluster and coachspeak is that he really does know what he’s doing. Changing major pieces of his roster ever year (by his own choice) is a daunting task and getting kids to buy into his teaching, juggling high profile egos and, yes, winning games is not easy. Yet, with three Final Four appearances and one national title in his 5 years at Kentucky, Calipari is almost making it look too easy.
Like great coaches before him, Calipari uses the media to his advantage whenever possible. And for Cal, that means whenever a microphone and a reporter is in his face, that’s an opportunity to send a message to his players, the fans, game officials, the NCAA or the media itself. Calipari is famous for his almost Bill Clinton like ability to answer your question while making a point that he wants to make anyway. With the 2013-14 team and its roster full of McDonald’s High School All-Americans and future NBA draft picks on the cusp of completely collapsing, Cal pulled off a Jedi mind trick worthy of Obi-Wan Kenobi himself. Cal proudly stated that he had “tweaked” the team and their performance would improve. Few, if anyone, bought into the thought that at the beginning of March, Cal could wave a magic wand and get a team that looked like a bunch of ill-fitting pieces to somehow morph into a cohesive team. Most people, fan and sportswriter alike, believed that Cal was using his famous coachspeak to deflect some of the attention away from his players and onto himself. Quite a noble sentiment.
In the 1999 film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a human forced into an ongoing battle with machines that have taken over the Earth. Most of the battle takes place inside “the Matrix,” a virtual reality simulation of the real world that most people don’t even believe they’ve been plugged into. In this virtual world, Neo and his comrades can perform superhuman feats of strength, agility and speed with Neo being able to dodge bullets. Why? Because the Matrix wasn’t the real world, no matter how much people thought it was. Neo was able to perform these feats because he believed he could. As a child told Neo about the Matrix: I can bend this spoon inside the Matrix because there is no spoon. And likewise, there really was no “Tweak.”
No matter what Calipari said or did to the team prior to the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, it worked. It worked because above anything else he said or did, the team finally believed in what Calipari was selling and, most importantly, they finally believed in themselves. They believed that they were that group of guys that many had foolishly thought could go 40-0. They believed that they were better than their record indicated. They believed that their youth didn’t mean that they couldn’t close out tight games against high level competition. They believed there was no spoon.
A lot of national sportswriters and opposing fans have a had a field day with Calipari, his book and the whole idea of his “tweak.” There are jokes and chuckles on social media. There are snarky columns being written. No one really believes in the tweak. No one except the 13 young men that turned their season around and made that run for the ages to the NCAA title game. So, laugh all you want, but whatever John Calipari tweaked worked and now we all should believe.