What's So Great About the Kentucky Job?

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It’s already happening, just as we knew it would.

Many of the national media, ignoring the excellent advice of the Herald-Leader’s Mark Story, are taking the “lazy” angle on the UK basketball coaching story. They’re invoking the “beware of the short fuse” argument against any coach accepting the job in Lexington.

Why, they “reason,” would you want to go there when, the first time you have a bad season, you’re out?

I heard it Monday morning on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” show. It was Greenberg, arguing with basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb, and he dropped it in among reasons he put forth as to why John Calipari would be crazy to leave Memphis.

His others were compelling: 30 guaranteed victories at a powerhouse that totally dominates a weak conference; money (there’s always going to be enough); status (they’ll erect a statue of him in Memphis when he’s finished there, Greenberg reasoned).

And there was the two-year thing, Greenberg saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “The first time his point guard sprains his ankle and they go 19-12, he’s out.”


But that wasn’t his best argument. He basically asked, What’s so special about the Kentucky job?

If you’re going to examine this notion, you have to distance yourself from UK basketball – tough as that may be. Try not to come at it as a 5-to-105-year-old who has lived/slept/breathed Wildcat hoops all your life. Tough to do, I know. But try.

Think about it as though you were an 18-year-old basketball stud with limitless options, the kind of kid who pops up on the radar of every competent Division I recruiter. What are you looking for?

It says here, they all want the same, if not similar, things: Playing time, a chance to shop themselves for the NBA, exposure, and a chance to win.

Note the “win” thing came at the end, sadly. Generally it moves itself to the head of the line the longer a recruit stays at one school. But during the wooing process, it’s all about “me.” And that’s not surprising.

Kids who have been told all their lives by friends and relatives how special they are, now are hearing it from TV stars come to life: Coach K, Ricky P, Jim Calhoun, Izzo, Tubby, etc. And even if the coaches are saying all the right things about teamwork and class work, the player often is hearing it through the filter that comes with 18-year-old ears.

That’s why parents can be so vital in the process. Or destructive. If they, as Tubby Smith once said, “hear the jingle” the same way prospective posse members hear it, there’s disaster on the way.

It used to be all of those things on a recruit’s wish list were available at just a handful of schools. Now, you can find them everywhere. The only variable is playing time.

Exposure? Schools in the power conferences all benefit from regional and national television packages. Even the smaller schools offer video broadcasts via the internet, so Mom and Dad can keep up, even if they can’t make it to the games.

NBA? If you can play, a scout will find you.

Winning? If it IS important, check out the Final Four this year.

Traditional power North Carolina is there, sure, but so is Connecticut – a punching bag until Calhoun began to work his magic, whatever that might be. Villanova won an NCAA title in Lexington, Ky., but hasn’t exactly been a Final Four presence since. Michigan State has had a wonderful run under Tom Izzo – but does that school jump to the A list when you’re talking about traditional basketball powers?

So that said, what’s so special about Kentucky?

Fortunately, Gottlieb is a basketball junkie, and had the correct answer. Tradition.

Some players, perhaps precious few, understand it when they arrive. But by the time they leave Lexington, they’ve got it down cold. Their first participation in Midnight Madness goes a long way toward burnishing those thoughts into their heads.

During the production of “Inside Kentucky Basketball: All Access,” we caught on videotape a conversation between freshman Donald Williams and junior Ramon Harris, who was trying to prepare the newbie for what he would see that night in Rupp Arena during Madness. Harris spoke with the authority that comes with experience. And mind you, this is a kid who grew up in Alaska. But he knows.

Gottlieb basically explained that excelling at a school such as Memphis is grand – but to a guy like Calipari, coaching at Kentucky means BECOMING part of the tradition that a basketball professional fully appreciates.

Greenberg asked, Would an NCAA title would have meant more at UK than it would at Memphis?

No. And yes.

Had he won a national championship at Memphis, Coach Cal forever would be remembered as the guy who won a national championship at Memphis. And that would have been great - for him, and Tiger fans everywhere.

Had he won it in Lexington, he would have taken his place among the four other coaches who already have, beginning with Adolph Rupp. And while that might sound pompous to someone in, say, Memphis (and it probably is), the fact remains – most coaches respect (some even revere) the basketball that has happened at Kentucky during the past century. It’s part of the fabric of the college game, the very essence of their professional being.

Would it be a bad move for Calipari to stay in Memphis? Absolutely not. They love him there, he makes great coin and, as he says, his name is always linked to big-time openings. He’s made it. And, it says here, he WILL win an NCAA title if he stays there.

But he could do the same here. It would take virtually the exact same amount of sweat equity (maybe more, given the relative strength of the Southeastern Conference) to make it happen. But if he, or someone else, manages to bring home number eight, he’ll know what it feels like to be one of the Fortune 500 hoop programs.

Pompous? It wasn’t I who called Kentucky the “Holy Roman Empire” of college basketball. It was none other than Rick Pitino, who later said leaving it was the biggest mistake of his career.

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