A significant swath of Kentucky fans want John Calipari fired. The exact percentage is impossible to know—Gallup has not polled the issue—but it’s more than a fringe idea. “Lots of people in this state have that view,” Matt Jones, founder of the UK media empire Kentucky Sports Radio, told me on Twitter. “It isn’t the majority but is more than most would think.”
In the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Thursday night, Calipari’s Wildcats lost to a No. 15 seed, Saint Peter’s, in what Jones called “the worst loss in school history.” Worse still is that it’s now been 10 years since Calipari’s lone national title, which he won in his third season in Lexington thanks to the long arms of Anthony Davis. Kentucky expects to hang a lot of banners, and even if Calipari doesn’t match Adolph Rupp’s four, Big Blue Nation will be more than a little annoyed if he fails to exceed the one each that Joe B. Hall, Tubby Smith, and Rick Pitino won.
I seriously doubt that Calipari, who makes more than $8 million per season, will get shown the door. There is enough dumb money and ambition in college sports that anyone can get fired, but Calipari’s buyout is well into in the tens of millions of dollars—more than anyone’s ever paid to fire a coach. Title-winning coaches usually have to do worse to get fired than have a decade’s worth of good, non-championship teams. Kentucky would have to do some underhanded things to move on, most likely.
But Kentucky’s loss to Saint Peter’s raises a couple of different questions: Is it possible for Calipari to meet the expectations he and Kentucky have created for themselves? And in trying to adapt his approach to this era of college basketball, will he lose what made his program special? Is there a middle ground?
Calipari has always talked about his program like it exists on a different plane than the rest of college hoops, with different objectives. He once said that his main goal was to get players drafted, not to win a national title, which, naturally, was part of an effort to woo the kind of players who would help him win a national title.
You hire Calipari to recruit. Maybe he’s a good in-game schemer, and maybe he isn’t. The Xs and Os are secondary anyway, because Calipari’s best skill is getting bunches of the most impressive high school players in the world to descend on Lexington every summer—the likes of Davis, John Wall, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Murray, Devin Booker, and … you get the point.
No sane person within a million miles of college sports would doubt this strategy. Sure, Kentucky is proof that no level of recruiting dominance insulates a team from a meltdown year, as Calipari missed the tournament in both 2013 and a COVID-altered 2021. But the general approach is good enough to put UK in loose proximity to the title every year.
If you can snap your fingers (or make enough phone calls, or be charming enough, or have a beautiful enough campus, or whatever) to get future lottery picks at the clip Calipari does, there is a good case that you would be the dumbest man in the world if you did not do that. But the best players have not always brought Calipari the best results in the biggest games.
Maybe the issue is that his playbook doesn’t let the NBA’s stars of tomorrow do their best work. Maybe it’s that his teams, while always hilariously athletic and big, are almost never great at jump-shooting. They often rank near the bottom of Division I in the percentage of their baskets involving an assist, which is one (maybe flimsy) indicator of a lack of team play and cohesion. Kentucky’s tournament losses since 2012 have contributed to that picture. The offense fell apart in the national final against UConn in 2014, scoring 54 points on 39 percent shooting. More or less the same thing happened in a 2018 Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State. Reasonable people might take different views of hard-fought losses to No. 1 seeds Wisconsin (2015) and North Carolina (2017), although those debates might feel silly in light of the Saint Peter’s debacle.
It’s not accurate to say that this way of doing business isn’t conducive to winning titles. Calipari won 2012 (with Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, among others) and Duke followed suit (with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones) in 2015. But it’s true that most national champions in men’s college basketball have a lot of upperclassmen and play with a coherent identity. The two most recent champions, ultra-physical Baylor and defensive-minded, slow-paced Virginia, had an approach that went beyond “we’ve got the best players.”
That Kentucky doesn’t roll that way has been a minor but consistent knock on Calipari. But it’s not why they lost to Saint Peter’s. This season, the Kentucky coach went another way. He saw the sport changing, and realized that loosened transfer restrictions meant he could recruit a whole new class of great players: guys who were already college stars.
Going into this year, he brought in a group of veteran transfers, a crew that he supplemented with three of the nation’s top 40 high school players. This season’s Wildcats featured should-be National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, a forward from West Virginia, and guards Kellan Grady and Sahvir Wheeler, who came from Davidson and Georgia respectively. That trio teamed up with forwards Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz, who came from Rhode Island and Creighton before the 2020 season. The only classic one-and-done player on this year’s team (assuming he does in fact head off to be a lottery pick) was point guard TyTy Washington.
Calipari would have looked like an adaptable genius if the Wildcats won the national title. Alas, they fell six wins short, with those five transfers scoring 66 of Kentucky’s 79 points in Thursday’s first-round loss. Now, in the aftermath of that embarrassing defeat, it looks a little bit like Calipari threw a grenade launcher in the trash and replaced it with a drawer full of butter knives.
But sticking with the big gun left him just as vulnerable to criticism, for the simple reason that there are 68 teams in the tournament and even Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas can’t just pass the championship back and forth the way Alabama and Clemson have done in football of late, with occasional cameos by the sport’s other top recruiters.
Would a more typical band of Calipari freshmen have bulldozed Saint Peter’s from the start? We’ll never know. But when you more or less have carte blanche to pick your roster, every small-sample-size failure looks like a reflection of your own choices rather than a testament to the cruel fickleness of March Madness. Any year in which one of 67 other teams wins the tournament is a year in which Calipari either stuck his head in the sand and ignored the need for veteran leadership, or one in which he saddled UK with a less talented group than he could have. It’s a tough business!
So, what does Calipari do now? The reality is that he can’t get anyone he wants. Good players do sometimes pick non-Kentucky schools, even when Kentucky wants them. Gonzaga, once an adorable March Madness Cinderella, has recently developed a habit of luring the world’s best pre-professional basketball players to Spokane, Washington. If Calipari is now trying to create balanced rosters with young phenoms and experienced transfers, the Bulldogs’ Mark Few (who, admittedly, has yet to win a title himself) has a track record of doing it better more recently.
And at this stage, Calipari doesn’t just have the sport’s national powers to deal with. When he arrived in the SEC, most of his new opponents didn’t take the sport all that seriously, at least compared to football. In his first year, the league was fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin. In 2022, it was second, and the league’s best teams spent the entire season beating each other up. Alabama’s building a basketball arena! Auburn’s highest-paid coach in any sport is Bruce Pearl. A basketball coach! The days of Kentucky waltzing through the league year after year are never coming back. And Calipari is also increasingly getting squeezed on the other end of the basketball ladder, as the NBA’s G-League and other professional opportunities make his one-and-done route less attractive as a way station for the NBA.
No one should feel bad for Calipari. He chose to be one of the richest guys in the grease factory that is college basketball. He courted the expectations that come with sitting in Rupp’s seat, in the heart of a state that takes this sport as seriously as bourbon and horse racing. He chose to portray Kentucky as a destination unlike any other, and then he made that vision a reality. He earns whatever criticism comes when he loses, whether to Kansas or Saint Peter’s. Calipari’s job is to coach basketball, but he’s a politician, too. And at some point—probably not now, but also not never—the voters stop caring about what you did in 2012.