Wednesday, April 4, 2012

John Calipari - The New Jerry Tarkanian/Jimmy Johnson

John Calipari is the new Jerry Tarkanian/Jimmy Johnson. Now that he’s won a title, he can take his place among the controversial and successful modern legends of college sports.

Jimmy Johnson (with a start from Howard Schnellenberger) revolutionized college football in the 1980’s with Miami by fully embracing a mostly Black, inner-city roster that won big, won often and talked trash while doing it for each other and their school. Jerry Tarkanian took Las Vegas’ rebellious, wild image and translated it on the court with high flying teams that won often, culminating with his classic 1989-1991 squad that won 45 in a row and the biggest win (margin of victory) in NCAA title history.

Both attracted their fair share of controversy during their prime. But history has been far kinder in retrospect since 1) Their guys graduated, 2) They won, 3) They influenced future generations and have honestly yet to be replicated. John Calipari is the same way.

I really didn’t want to like Calipari after 2008. He had the best team of the season in Memphis and arrogantly let FT woes doom one of the best teams I’ve seen in the last 5 years. The same thing happened with his first Kentucky class as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Co. lost to an inferior West Va. Team. His freewheeling style only bothered me because his guys lacked the mental toughness in close games.

I didn’t care that he openly recruited one-and-dones. It was more like they’d be great but never championship caliber. Well he just turned that idea upside down. He built a young team that worked for a common goal. They dominated all comers and lost only twice – once on a late 3, another in a game they probably lost to get focused for the NCAA Tournament.

He maximized a system that has become the norm over the last 5 years - one and done kids. Instead of recruiting the best talent alone and hoping that mentally they’ll pan out, Calipari coached them up to be team first and shine in their gifts while helping each other.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones probably made a lot more money because not only did they impact games, they showed they can gel with teammates and play different roles that could prepare them for not starring right away in the NBA. That's all Calipari's genius.

Most coaches put up with one-and-dones as a necessary evil. Calipari courts them and maximizes his time while knowing it is limited. He embraces the new era and it’s led to success. It’s a lot of foresight and risk and while it’s not always clean – I still don’t trust Worldwide Wesley and all those connections – now I have to respect it.

Even better that they focus on the little things. Free throws, hustle plays, defense as well as wild offense.

It’s maturity in not just his players, but himself. He cares about the kids. He cares about them the same way Tark and Jimmy Johnson once did and he’ll go to bat for them in the press. Not a lot of coaches have that because they care about being in control and letting people know who’s in control without letting the kids be solo. There’s a way to balance control with letting players be them and the best coaches do that.

Tarkanian and Jimmy Johnson had great teams fall short. But they reloaded and refocused their teams while never changing their style. It was free reign with the right amount of discipline to have their guys focused on the main goal. They took national criticism and just kept winning. 

It's the same with Calipari. Gone is the old arrogance of letting talent win big and leave without a ring. If he continues to convince high talent to buy into his system – which produced some of the most promising young NBA talent over the last 5 years – he’ll be remembered as one of the finest and influential coaches of his era. 

He's the perfect coach for a new era that builds off 20 years of younger players making an impact. Kenny Anderson, Chris Jackson and the Fab 5 showed the future of freshmen/sophomores taking over. Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden gave glimpses of it. John Calipari has taken that mantle and made it even more a rebelution – not just the players but a coach who see the future and have made it a reality.

Rebels never get their proper due in their time. But in 10 years, we may see Calipari differently and despite his controversy with 1996 UMass/2008 Memphis, he may finally be on a roll that could enhance his legacy and impact college basketball longterm.

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