Backboard: Cal’s State

by September 22, 2009

The NCAA coaching carousel was in full swing this summer, with coaches following dough to greener pastures, taking assistants and recruits with them—while leaving NCAA infractions and penalties behind. Now that the dust has settled on the summer of ’09, none can argue that John Calipari’s leaving Memphis for Kentucky was not the biggest move of them all. Not only does he bring a proven offensive system and one hell of a résumé, but Coach Cal also convinced some of the top freshmen to come with him to Lexington. And while the vacating of Memphis’s Final Four run was the discussion of the summer, we’re focused on the future—the 2009-2010 season. With that in mind, Michael Bradley caught up with Coach Cal to discuss his new gig at Kentucky, and a whole lot more.—Tzvi Twersky

Originally published in SLAM #132

As told to Michael Bradley

If I were 35 years old, there is no way I could do this job. As a matter of fact, if I were 40, I don’t know if I could do the job. But at 50, I have enough scars on my body and bazooka holes in my back that I can survive it.

It’s not going to be easy, but I think I’m prepared. It doesn’t mean I’m going to win 10 National Titles, but I’ve been through enough wars and being the big game on everybody’s schedule and have recruited enough McDonald’s All-Americans and have had to deal with agendas at the highest level, that I’m ready to take the challenge.

I read where this is one of the hardest jobs in all of sports. The Yankees, the Cowboys, Manchester United…but is there a better coaching job in all of sports or in the game of basketball than Kentucky? No. The attention you get here is incredible. Everywhere we go in the state, there is a feeling of euphoria, and we haven’t even done anything yet.

SLAM #132; Backboard, Coach Calipari. It’s going to be a challenge to blend the team together. The first thing we’re going to do is watch Remember the Titans, which is a story of two teams coming together. We have to figure out what we want to do. Are we going to be our brother’s keeper? Are we going to look out for each other? Some guys have to step up. Some guys have to step back. Some will be the glue guys who play just because they can help the team.

There’s always anxiety in the summer, because you try to figure it out on paper. This year, I spent just a little time thinking about how we’ll play if we have two big guys on the court or two point guards. You can’t guess until you see it.

We’re going to win because we guard people, because we steal and rebound. Last year [at Memphis], we were number one in the nation in field goal percentage defense [37.1 percent]. Then, we’ll worry about the dribble-drive offense. We have the people to play this offense. Darius Miller, this is the offense for him. Patrick Patterson, the reasons he came back were 1, So he could graduate in three years, 2, he wants to play in the NCAA Tournament and 3, this offense will help him take his game away from the basket and improve his skills for the next level.

But I’m not kidding myself. This is an NIT team that lost its leading scorer (Jodie Meeks), and we’re supposed to win the National Championship. That shows the respect for these players and the talent that is coming in. And those freshmen have already done a great job. They all took their classes over the summer, and they got one C. The rest were Bs and As. Their grade point average was 3.25, so they took care of business. These are good kids, but they have some kinks in their armor. But I’m pretty good at dealing with that.

Bonus Online Coverage: John Calipari on recruiting

The president and I talked, and he told me, “You’ve given us more than we thought [traveling throughout the state talking to people.] Don’t feel you have to keep doing it.” I told him that the minute the season starts, I’m with the guys. One day a week I’ll be recruiting, the other six I’ll be here. I’m not doing speaking engagements.

I’m excited about recruiting here. At the end of our run at Memphis, there were still homes we couldn’t move into. Here, it opens up every other door that we couldn’t get into before. When I was at UMass, I would offer 25 scholarships and get three or four kids. At Memphis, I would offer 25, then seven or eight to get two or three. Here, if I offer 20 scholarships, I’ll get 20 kids. I have to be careful, because there are a lot of players who are interested in us, whether we’re recruiting them or not.

We’re going to sign four guys, maybe five for next year, and they’re going to have to play. We’re zeroing in no guys who can help us. We want a team of nine or 10 guys, and we want to come at you in waves. I will demand that they guard people. They’ll make some mistakes, but they have to guard. I’ll demand they play with intensity, almost to the point of viciousness.

Teams that win, like Arkansas in ’95, play 10 guys. Kentucky in ’96 did it. North Carolina the first year they won it under Roy [Williams]. They had nine guys who were McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s when you get your program where you want it. We can get that here, and that’s what makes it exciting.

We’re looking everywhere. I spent part of the summer in China. It’s the fifth time I was there. You have to be invited. We want to get Chinese students on campus, and that will be our entrance to the Chinese basketball players. If there are students here, there’s a community for the players to join. It might not happen for a while, and it might only benefit the next [coach], but I’m trying.