Late last week, University of Kentucky’s Head Men’s Basketball Coach John Calipari signed a contract extension that, in theory, will keep in Lexington, through the 2020-21 season. If he lasted until March 2021, he would earn $52.5 million in guaranteed compensation. Most college basketball folks see this as a sign by Mitch Barnhart and the university to prevent any other colleges and most NBA teams from courting Calipari and keeping him in Lexington long term. When news broke on Monday that the Cleveland Cavaliers offered Calipari a contract to be the team’s head coach and president (7 years at nearly $60 million), it’s clear that the offers are still going come Cal’s way.
The obvious statement in all this contract talk is that, at some point, Calipari, will leave the University of Kentucky. Despite what ESPN’s Michael Wilbon has been screaming for years, it’s not because the natives in the Big Blue Nation are restless and that it’s always a “Championship or Bust” mentality. Calipari will leave because that’s what coaches do. If Cal stays through the end of this contract extension, he will be the second longest tenured coach at UK since the legendary Adolph Rupp. As great as the Wildcats’ job is, it’s not necessarily built as a long term position. While the fans aren’t as homicidal and fervent as Wilbon contends, there are pressures, both internal and external, that make the job more than just Xs and Os.
Since Rupp stepped down at the end of the 1972, there have been three types of UK coaches: the nice guys that won, but not quite enough (Hall, Smith), the men that embraced the challenge of the UK job and relished the spotlight (Pitino, Calipari) and the disasters (Sutton, Gillispie). Billy Gillispie lasted two seasons. Eddie Sutton lasted four. Tubby Smith lasted nine. Joe B. Hall lasted 13. Rick Pitino lasted eight seasons. And Calipari has made it through five seasons so far. What is evident is that even for those coaches that have won NCAA titles prior to Cal (Hall, Smith, Pitino), there hasn’t been a long tenured coach coach among them, someone approaching the tenure of Coach K at Duke or Jim Boheim at Syracuse. Only Coach Hall, who had to unenviable task of being the man to follow a legend, and won a title of his own in 1978, came the closest, but eventually he burned out.
It’s been said that the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky is on par with the Governor as far as importance to the citizens within the Commonwealth of Kentucky and especially amongst the members of the Big Blue Nation. Where most college basketball coaches are only in the spotlight during the season, the head man in Lexington is in the bright burning spotlight 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. While not every season is a championship or bust type situation, the fans demand excellence from October to March. Every game and, thanks to social media, every play is almost examined ad nauseum. The scrutiny from the fan base is unparalleled among any other group in the country. From defensive sets to offensive execution, to substitution and playing time, everything the coach does, or doesn’t do, is fair game for discussion. And not too many coaches can tolerate that kind of unyielding scrutiny.
Even this past season, Coach Cal appeared to be cracking under the pressure. During and after the loss to South Carolina, Calipari looked as if the weight of expectations and demands was finally getting to him. He got thrown out of the game and balked on a post game interview. As we know, he “tweaked” the team and righted the ship and guiding the young Cats to the NCAA title game. For the first time since Rupp, it looks as if the Big Blue Nation has a coach that not only understands the challenge of being the head man for Big Blue, he embraces the spotlight and takes the pressure and expectations in stride. Certainly, Calipari will leave, but the events of the past few days show that he may just make Lexington his long term Kentucky Home.