In the commonwealth of Kentucky, a state that brushes against the edges of the Bible Belt, the religion of choice is basketball. Its followers are devout. Fanatical, even. They commit themselves to their faith completely, studying their scripture day and night, making regular pilgrimages not only to their house of worship—the basketball cathedral, Rupp Arena—but to the far corners of the country, wherever their beloved Wildcats ply their trade. University of Kentucky basketball is their true north.
At the head of this congregation is one man: John Vincent Calipari. Reviled by most—seen as a snake oil salesman at best and a forbidden fruit–hawking serpent in an Italian suit at worst—Calipari, the head coach of the top-ranked team in the land, might just be college basketball’s public enemy No. 1. But in the Bluegrass State, he walks on water.
Prior to arriving in Lexington, Calipari’s reputation in the basketball community had, to say the least, taken some hits. Two vacated Final Four seasons—one at the University of Massachusetts, another at Memphis—earned him a reputation as a coach willing to bend any rules to win. Five years ago, this very publication published a story titled, “The Sleaziest Coach in a Sleazy Game.” You can guess who it was about. None of this matters in Kentucky, though—neither the allegations of personal rule-bending nor the proven impropriety that occurred under his watch. Kentucky believes in Calipari completely. The winning helps, sure. But in a state that thrives on its own sense of embattlement, your hate for Coach Cal only makes their love stronger.
Since taking over at Kentucky, Calipari has unleashed hellfire on the college basketball world. In those five-plus years, he’s garnered a ridiculous winning percentage of more than 0.830, with three Final Fours, two championship appearances, and one national title. He has also sent 19 players to the NBA draft, including 15 first-round picks (two of whom have gone No. 1 overall), and already reeled in four top-ranked recruiting classes (not counting next year’s potentially No. 1 group). This year, his Cats entered the NCAA tournament a perfect 34-0—the first major conference team to run the table in the regular season since 1976—with the immortality of a perfect season just a handful of games within reach. From the moment the sport’s ultimate salesman aligned himself with one of its few truly blue-blooded programs, Lexington has been the epicenter of college basketball.
And it’s that last part—more than the wins, the Final Fours, the recruiting classes, and the wide-open pipeline to the NBA—that explains the Big Blue Nation’s unwavering devotion to Coach Cal.
Kentucky is a state that, on the surface, doesn’t have much. The best thoroughbreds and bourbon in the world, of course. Jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery and some of the most gracious people you’ll ever meet, definitely. But it’s also dominated by abject poverty (five of the country’s 10 poorest counties are in Kentucky) and an overreliance on the dying coal industry. The state has no urban center with more than a million people and no professional sports teams. What it does have, though, is a college basketball program with a nearly unmatched tradition.
“Basketball is so ingrained into Kentucky’s identity. It’s a place, obviously, if you look at things like poverty, things like education, it usually ranks near the bottom,” says Craig Meyer, a Louisville native and college basketball reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s a state that a lot of people look at and say it’s a place that doesn’t have a lot going for it.” As a result of this void elsewhere, the game long ago transcended the status of a mere spectator sport and became an embodiment of the state’s best qualities. “UK basketball is not only an important form of entertainment for fans in Kentucky. It’s also a part of many fans’ identity in general,” says Matt Jones, the state’s most popular sports radio host and founder of UK blog, Kentucky Sports Radio. “When the basketball program has success, it’s sort of symbolic of the state having success.”
Calipari has proven himself to be a coach who not only understands those realities, but also relates to them.
Over a decade removed from its last championship—a lifetime, by Kentucky standards—and coming off of the near-lethal combination of Tubby Smith’s final malaise-ridden seasons and Billy Gillispie’s train wreck two-year tenure, Calipari seemed to be the program’s last, best hope at salvation when he came on. “It didn’t feel like Kentucky basketball,” says Meyer of the state of Big Blue Nation at the time. “It felt like this majestic bird that when it’s fully healthy, and when it flies, it’s a beautiful sight. But it was like if that bird had a bad wing.”
Calipari’s savior status offered the potential for him to walk in treating the job like little more than a shiny new toy to show recruits—or worse, a way station en route to the NBA. But instead, his early public statements were odes to the program’s greatness and deference to its tradition. Calipari understood what Rick Pitino had before him: He was inheriting “the Roman Empire of college basketball.”
The instant success that Calipari brought with him to Lexington obviously mattered to the UK faithful. In his first year on the job, he signed top recruits and future NBA stars Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins, as well the program-changing, once-in-a-generation talent that was John Wall. From then on—with the exception of a minor detour to the NIT—the Wildcats have been the “it” program in college basketball.
Arguably more important to fans, though, is how he has carried himself in the midst of all that success. In every situation in which he could be interpreted as an ambassador for the state as a whole—which, in a job more high-profile than governor, is whenever he’s out in public—he presents himself as, well, an adopted Kentuckian.
“He sees himself as an underdog who has fought through a lot to have success, and I think that’s how a lot of Kentuckians see themselves,” says Jones. “And I think he sees himself as often criticized and mocked, and I think Kentuckians see themselves like that as well.” What truly rallies the fan base to his cause is his defiance in regard to his own personal—and the state’s perceived—shortcomings. “He defends Kentucky and the system that he’s coaching, and he stands up to people—which are all things that Kentuckians would like to do to the many people who criticize the state,” Jones says.
In Calipari’s case, he’s not just defending the program and system—he’s also defending his own morality. Marcus Camby accepted money from an agent, and Derrick Rose evidently cheated on the SATs while still in high school, and as a result, Cal’s ethics will forever be under the microscope. When looked at through that critical lens, a sound practice of operation like recruiting the country’s best players is warped into something inherently shady or against the grain.
Of course, none of this is to say that Calipari is an entirely underserved target, as his proximity to two vacated Final Four appearances with two different programs at least warrants some billowing of smoke. When there’s only smoke, though—when Calipari has never actually been proven to have done any of the illicit things to which many attribute his success—then what remains is a battle fought over perception.
“I think Cal fits a certain kind a caricature—he has the nice suits, he has the slicked-back hair, and he’s got that past where places he’s been have gotten into trouble,” says Meyer. “So I think he becomes this easy villain. He becomes a guy that you can label.” And that’s a fight that Kentucky fans, unfairly branded for so long as backwoodsian and inherently less-than, are all too willing to take up. “These are a very proud people who wrap a large part of their identity around the athletic fortunes of a college team.”
It’s this that gets at the heart of the Calipari-Kentucky marriage. The match goes beyond the merging of recruiting prowess and top-notch facilities and storied history. Ultimately, the foundation of the relationship exists in the huge chip on the shoulder that both sides share. Their mutual self-perceived underdog statuses—along with the respect shown by a coach to a fan base and state that receive little of it from the outside world—make it a perfect union. For that reason Kentucky fans have been able to enjoy this season without guilt or doubt.
In Tommy Tomlinson’s excellent feature on Calipari for ESPN, he laid out the following scenario: “Pretend that Calipari isn’t on the bench. Take the names off the Kentucky jerseys, front and back,” he writes. “Set aside the baggage and just watch them play basketball. In this team’s hands, it is a beautiful game.” Kentucky fans don’t need to pretend to understand the beauty of Cal’s methods. He recruits the best players in the country, gets them to buy into the team and his program, and makes their dreams come true in the way of future NBA contracts. End stop. All the noise, all the chatter about cheating and bending the rules, it doesn’t matter within the confines of the Bluegrass State. They believe in Cal—and defend him against an unceasing onslaught of vitriol—not because he wins, but because he gets it. He gets Kentucky.