Final Four: Calipari gets his title ¿ and some validation
John Calipari climbs the ladder to cut his piece of the net Monday after Kentucky beat Kansas in the NCAA final. (AP Photo / April 3, 2012)
His Final Four appearance with Massachusetts — and semifinal loss to Kentucky — was voided by the NCAA even though Calipari was never found guilty of any wrongdoing. His Final Four appearance with Memphis — and title game loss to Kansas — was voided after the NCAA gave Memphis the clearance to play Derrick Rose and then voided the wins for playing Rose.
But this time Calipari can keep his Final Four trip and the best prize of all, a national championship.
His one-and-done philosophy turned into won-and-done when UK completed its national championship journey by beating Kansas 67-59 Monday. However, rather than being giddy over the win, Calipari was stoic and almost seemed emotionally drained. Maybe he was afraid to appear to be too happy, thinking the NCAA might try to whack him again. Or maybe all the work he put into this season made him want to cherish the moment internally.
“You know what it is, I told my wife, I'm glad it's done. Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be, helping young people, you know, create better lives for themselves and their families, and also helping them prepare for life after basketball,” Calipari said. “I can get on with that. I don't have to hear the drama. I can just coach now. I don't have to worry. If you want to know the truth, it's almost like, ‘Done, let me move on.’”
Sounds good, but it won’t happen. His legacy is set in Kentucky, but even with more than 500 wins, 30-win seasons, conference titles, All-American players, NBA draft picks and now a national title, national pundits were debating his future Hall of Fame credentials — and looking to poke holes in them — before the Final Four started. That won’t go away.
Just minutes after the title game, Calipari once again was drilled about the one-and-done rule that he has said time after time he was against but national media members often pay no attention.
“I don't think it's a good rule. I hope we change it before this week's out so all these guys have to come back,” he joked. “But it is a rule. It's not my rule. It's a rule we have to deal with.”
And deal with well. How can anyone argue that John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton or Brandon Knight suffered by playing one year at Kentucky and then becoming NBA millionaires? Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will do the same this year. Maybe even Marquis Teague. But tell me one college coach that would not have liked to had those players. Any coach who bemoans the one-and-done player is simply a coach who can’t recruit high level talent like that.
But Calipari gets Kentucky basketball is about more than him — or even his players.
“The fans, the Big Blue Nation, all the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we did this for them, too. We know what it means to them. We know 5,000 of them camp out for our first practice. We go around and meet them all. Everywhere we go on the road, it is packed with blue. Tonight's building had to be 70 percent our fans. So we want to do it for them,” Calipari said.
“But more importantly, what a lesson for these young people, that if you share, you give up some of yourself for everyone around you, if you care more about the teammates than yourself, it's amazing what you can accomplish. It doesn't matter your age. That's the lesson in this. Everybody wants to go back, that they're all 19 and 18 years old. Yeah, they are. But they're special young people who really decided that, We're going to do this together.
“When you say Michael Gilchrist and Anthony Davis taking the fourth and fifth most shots on our team, that's saying something. I wanted them to feel this, to understand the rest of their life, it's about servant leadership, it's about teaching all those guys how to lead. It wasn't just one guy, I wanted them all to learn how to lead.”
They did and all had to at times during the tournament whether it was senior Darius Miller hitting a big shot, sophomores Doron Lamb or Terrence Jones making a shot or grabbing a rebound, or freshmen Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague and Kyle Wiltjer doing something to change a game in UK’s favor. That was the case all season and why UK barely missed having its top six players all average in double figures. It was always about team, never about me.”
Calipari wouldn’t make it about him after the game, either.
“Guys, I feel the same as I did before the game. I don't feel any different. I'm not going to change who I am. I'm here for these young people, and they know that. I would hope they tell you they play hard because they trust me, and what I'm telling them it's in their best interest,” he said. “And so I don't feel any different. I'm not going to feel any different in the morning. I'm going to go to mass in the morning. I'm going to be the same guy I am.
“I'm telling you. It's over now. I can get about my business of coaching young people and not have the drama of all the other stuff.”
Again, the no drama wish won’t go away. There will be a near-capacity crowd at Rupp Arena this afternoon to welcome the Wildcats back. Then if Calipari gets Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad both to commit to UK next week as he very well could, he’ll have a fourth straight No. 1 recruiting class and likely another freshman-dominated team next season that will go into the year ranked in the top 10.
Calipari knows his players will grow to appreciate their 38-2 mark and national championship more and more as the years go by.
“They'll have a big picture in the (Joe) Craft Center of their national championship team. They can walk them (their children) up and show them, ‘This was me, I was skinny then, I know, but that's what I looked like.’ It's for the ages now. It's the eighth national title,” Calipari said.
But the Calipari bashers will note that UK was fortunate to win because North Carolina, Syracuse and Michigan State all lost key players to injury or NCAA eligibility — and why do the same bashers treat Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim like a saint despite the problems that program has had? Those critics also won’t bash North Carolina for having three players already declared for the NBA draft.
They probably won’t even listen to how Calipari gets a player as good as Davis to get 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals on a night when he missed nine of 10 shots from the field.
“First of all, it starts with how you recruit them. I mean, you can't tell them you're going to shoot 30 times a game, the offense is going to run through you, you're going to start. None of these guys were promised they would start, how many minutes,” Calipari said. “Then you got to recruit them the right way so they know you're trustworthy. And then they got to trust that you're doing it for them, it's not about me.
“Then they'll do what you ask them to do because it's for them. I'm not doing it for me. I said this a couple years ago and everybody got crazy when we had five guys drafted in the first round. This is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history. The reason was, I knew now other kids would look and say, ‘You got to go there.’ What I'm hoping is there's six first-rounders on this team. We were the first program to have five, let's have six. That's why I've got to go recruiting on Friday.”
What he doesn’t need is lavish praise from anyone about what he’s done. He’ll settle for Kentucky fans being happy.
He said a long-time friend called Monday and paid him the best possible compliment by telling him, “You’re the same guy now as you were back then.”
That’s what Calipari wants those who have known him longest to say and believe, but he’s not ready to rest on this accomplishment. Not at Kentucky.
“Right now I'm going to have two days and then I've got to go out recruiting Friday. So you tell me to look back. I'm just looking forward,”¿Calipari said. “Let's keep marching. Not trying to offend anybody, but ...,”