When Cal came to Kentucky a little over 10 seasons ago, he was the hottest name in college basketball and yet he was still under scrutiny from Derrick Rose having someone else take his ACT. When Memphis reached the National Championship in 2008, the story wasn’t Cal possibly winning his first but it was how he “cheated” at UMASS and how Memphis would soon be under the knife… which came to be true. And the same thing when he was hired to Kentucky, “he’ll have to vacate anything he wins there.” For the media and the haters, this is where that ends because as he finished up year 10, Cal is still the hottest coach in basketball and he just got a lifetime contract from the pinnacle of College Basketball.
When Cal stepped foot onto campus in 2009, remember how bad we were? Tubby Smith had decent teams but made one Final Four in 1998 and it was arguably with Rick’s players. In fact, the year before Cal came, we went to the NIT and had our failed Billy Clyde experiment. Kentucky basketball was not Kentucky basketball. In his first Big Blue Madness “State of the Program,” Cal mentioned how he dreamed of banners and banquets, diplomas and celebrations and “bringing this top program back to its’ rightful spot at the top of college basketball. Looking back it’s easy to say we should have won this or that, but Cal has done the one thing he promised: Kentucky is back at the top.
I think it’s easy to forget how bad we were. We had a drunk as a coach who locked players in bathrooms during games. We had a program that had not been in the Final Four since 1998. We also had the man who resurrected Kentucky basketball in the 1990’s stab us in the back and coach at Louisville. We had entered an era where basketball had finally passed up the team in Lexington and the entire landscape of basketball was changing with one and dones. With no future in sight, we hired John Calipari and he’s made it easy to forget what life was like before him. But in the radical fans’ defense, Cal changed it right away.
I will never forget the day, March 31, 2009. My family and I were on Spring Break and my mom gets a call saying Kentucky hired a new coach. It was all over ESPN and we stayed in our room for hours to listen to him speak. Then, it seemed almost immediate, “John Wall will be decommitting from Memphis and coming to Kentucky.” Then, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, etc. Just like that, Kentucky was resurrected. And how special was that year? 2,000 program wins, John Wall hitting the winning shot in his first game, Cousins with the tip back against Mississippi State in the SEC Final. We got out of our funk so quickly and it is only because of one man, John Calipari.
As I sat there Sunday sad as ever, I saw all the national media jumping at Cal’s throat that he failed again. But then, Duke lost. Finally K would get some blame, but no. Cal stayed the biggest and only failure. I know he won’t see this, but John Calipari is no failure. Kentucky basketball means something to each and every person. Some seasons hold more of an feeling than others. But I think one thing we can all agree on is this: without John Calipari, Kentucky never would have risen from the dead back in 2010. In fact, since 2010 John Calipari leads the country in wins (305), NCAA tournament wins (31), Final Fours (4), NBA top 10 picks (23), and lottery picks (19). John Calipari has been to 7 Elite Eight’s in his 10 seasons, no other team has more than 4.
You may be disappointed in only one title with all these teams, I’m sure Calipari is too. But think about it, would you trade it for anything or anyone else? Think of the people Cal introduced us to: Cousins, Wall, Bledsoe, Harrelson, Noel, Davis, MKG, Terrence Jones, Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, KAT, Lyles, Keldon, PJ, Reid, and so many more. Cal has given us the chance to enjoy 9 basketball seasons (2013 did not happen) and has allowed us to follow these kids into the NBA where they all come back home to Lexington every once in awhile. Cal may not have won more than one title so far and it absolutely sucks, but John Calipari has done something Billy Clyde and Tubby couldn’t do… win.
Calipari brought back a winning culture at Kentucky. In the 2000’s, none of us would expect a Championship year after year. We did not even expect 30 wins seasons like we do now. We accepted 8/9 seeds and even the NIT birth. Cal has brought us out of that. While he may have one title in 10 years, there is no one else I’d want. Because he’s been to the Championship game 3 times in 10 years. He’ll go to at least another 3 in the next 10. What didn’t go our way then, I believe it has a better chance to turn our way with him coaching.
So Pat Forde may have been fired from ESPN because he bought shots for everyone after Kentucky lost to West Virginia in 2010, and the national media may dog on him every single day, but I’ll say the one thing no one else will. Thank you, John Calipari. Thank you for bringing this program back to its’ rightful spot because honestly, it’s been a damn blast. No one deserves this lifetime contract but you.