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The Failure of Kentucky Coach John Calipari's "Players First" Philosophy

Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Who’s afraid of John Calipari? Two years ago, it was a long list. Calipari’s University of Kentucky team had just won the NCAA men’s college basketball championship—the school’s eighth but the coach’s first—and it looked like he and UK were on the verge of winning a whole lot more.

For years, it had been conventional wisdom in college basketball circles that a team of “one-and-doners” couldn’t win it all. Calipari had just destroyed that theory—three of the top six scorers on Kentucky’s national championship team were freshmen and two were sophomores—and, while all of those underclassmen would soon turn pro, Calipari had a new group of fantastic freshmen coming in the next season and was putting together another phenomenal recruiting class for the season after that. As one analyst wrote the morning after the 2012 national championship, the prospects of a Calipari dynasty loomed large “within the inner sanctums at the highest levels of college basketball. . . . There’s likely to be more because this program plugged up the biggest hole in its recruiting pitch. Now you can be the first pick in the draft and national champion.”

Except maybe you can’t. Although two of the freshmen on last year’s Kentucky team did become NBA first round picks, the team as a whole was a mere 21-12 and became the rare defending national champion to not even make the NCAA tournament. (To add insult to injury, Calipari’s squad then went on to lose in the first round of the also-ran tournament, the NIT.) And this year’s Kentucky team, which began the season ranked first in the nation by the top two polls, has struggled as well. Despite having six freshmen who were hailed by ESPN's Dick Vitale as "the best class ever assembled"—a talent haul so bountiful that Calipari speculated before the season that his team might go 40-0—Kentucky enters the NCAA tournament with a 24-10 record and an eighth seed, the definition of elite college basketball mediocrity. Although Kentucky’s a sexy upset pick this March Madness, the emphasis is on the word upset: No one really fears the team.

But Calipari’s recent struggles are about more than the travails of a basketball team. They’re about the undoing of an ideology. At his team’s first public practice last fall, Calipari stood on a stage and gave a political-convention-style speech in which he proclaimed, “We don’t just play college basketball, we are college basketball.” Indeed, since his arrival at Kentucky in 2009, Calipari hasn’t just tried to win games; he’s sought to change the long-established norms and verities of college basketball itself. He has cast himself as a coach-philosopher—one whose situational ethics are a better fit for today’s benighted college sports landscape than the higher-minded, some might say Pollyannaish ideals typically (and often hypocritically) preached by his coaching brethren. Alas, Calipari's philosophy is just as bankrupt as the one he seeks to tear down—if only because it's a philosophy that won't satisfy what's still the most basic requirement in college basketball: producing wins. 

College basketball has always had its “black hats”—those coaches who refuse to follow the rules or mouth the pieties that uphold and testify to the supposed purity of the sport. These black hats may have achieved success on the court—UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian, for instance, won a national championship in 1990—but the off-the-court rewards that typically flow to their similarly successful colleagues eluded them. The black hats did not translate their winning records into motivational books or Harvard Business School case studies; they didn’t appear in American Express ads in which they were able to tout themselves “as a leader who happens to coach basketball.” Tarkanian couldn’t even land a towel endorsement deal.

Calipari, by his own admission, wears a black hat. He does not prostrate himself before the NCAA, which he deems “holier than thou.” He’s the only coach in the history of college basketball to have two Final Four appearances “vacated” by the NCAA for rules violations (although, in both instances, the sport’s governing body never directly pinned the blame on him). His 1996 University of Massachusetts team, which went 35-2, had its tournament victories erased from the record books because its star player, Marcus Camby, was later found to have been taking money (as well as hookers and jewelry) from an agent. His 2008 Memphis University team, which went 38-2 and was a three-pointer away from winning the national championship, was whitewashed from history because its star player, Derrick Rose, had allegedly gotten someone else to take the SAT for him. And, while there have been no NCAA violations uncovered during his five years in Lexington, Calipari’s unapologetic reliance on “one-and-done” players has infuriated the sport’s white-hatted traditionalists. “Is this really the image we want to project as an institution of higher education?” Stanford’s athletic director once asked of Calipari’s approach at Kentucky. “I don’t think so.”

And yet, thanks largely to the current climate in college sports, all of this has actually enabled Calipari to do what the rest of his black-hat brethren have failed to accomplish: achieve mainstream respectability. Highbrow sportswriters bow at his feet: Deadspin has deemed him “the only man who really understands college basketball”; The New Yorker has hailed him as “the most honest man in the sport.” He’s been invited to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative and received a thank-you phone call from President Barack Obama for his philanthropic work. And next month, in the ultimate sign of respectability, Penguin will publish Calipari’s leadership manifesto Players First.

Written with Michael Sokolove (a New York Times Magazine contributing writer who once penned this paean to Calipari’s polar opposite, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski), Players First seeks to establish Calipari as a serious man, a person of substance. He discourses on the concept of “servant leadership.” He boasts that he’s usually reading three books at a time and that he attends Catholic Mass each morning. He got the idea for the latter after reading a book by Vince Lombardi, who himself went to Mass, and then discovering that Don Shula did as well. “I figured there must be something to this,” he writes.

The book’s biggest undertaking is to construct a philosophy out of Calipari’s mercenary mentality. It’s a commonplace among college coaches that the school—or, to put it in coachspeak, “the program”—comes before the individual: “We remind our players that the name on the front of the jersey (North Carolina) is more important than the one on the back (their own),” UNC coach Roy Williams likes to say. But Calipari doesn’t subscribe to such hokum. “My first priority isn’t the Commonwealth of Kentucky, or the university, or the legacy of the program, or the greater glory of Big Blue Nation,” he writes. “I coach for the names on the backs of the jerseys—not just the front. My players.”

It’s the “Players First philosophy” that enables Calipari to justify the fact that his teams have, as he writes, “the turnover rate of a fast-food restaurant.” He elaborates: “I want to recruit the very best players to Kentucky, as many of them as I can get. They are permitted to enter the NBA draft after one season with us, and if I do my job correctly, they will have that option.” It’s this approach that accounts for all this strange new respect for the coach. With big-time college sports drowning in hypocrisy—in which a multimillion dollar business wears the cloak of amateurism and the on-field entertainment are referred to as “student-athletes”—cynicism can pass for honesty.

Of course, Calipari himself isn’t immune to shading things. If he were truly a Players First coach, he might not have yanked the scholarships of those players he deemed unfit for his system when he was hired by Kentucky in 2009. If he was truly the tribune of honesty The New Yorker holds him up to be, he might allow that the nation’s best high-school hoopsters presumably come to play for him for reasons that go beyond Kentucky’s luxury basketball dorm or its chartered jets or even his record of placing kids in the NBA draft. (Nowhere in Players First, for instance, does the name William “World Wide Wes” Wesley appear.) But everyone, even a truth-teller, has to have his little hypocrisies.

Hypocrisy, though, won’t be what brings down Calipari. Rather, it will be his teams’ performances. Roy Williams wouldn’t get away with his hokey “name on the front of the jersey” spiel if his North Carolina teams didn’t win national championships. And Calipari won’t get away with his Players First philosophy unless his Kentucky teams start winning them again. Unfortunately for him, that seems unlikely.

What allowed Calipari’s 2012 Kentucky squad to win a national championship was the presence of two remarkable freshmen, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—“alpha beasts,” as their coach called them—who were mature and possessed basketball IQ’s well beyond their years. In other words, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t play like freshmen; they were once-in-a-generation players. But Calipari’s other freshmen-laden teams—no matter how talented they are—have constantly been undermined by their collective youth. Forget trying to teach them basic X’s and O’s; this season Calipari has even had to instruct his talented young charges to huddle up at the free-throw line before foul shots. After one late-season loss, he complained of his vaunted players, “They’re counting on me too much. And again, they’re immature. Things don’t go their way. They’re looking for excuses.”

Which isn’t a surprise. That’s why every other elite college basketball coach doesn’t recruit a slew of one-and-dones each year; they believe that their teams need a few experienced, maybe even less-talented upperclassmen to play alongside their freshmen tyros. But Calipari says he can’t abide by that philosophy. “There’s no way I’m intentionally recruiting a player because I know the NBA won’t want him after a year or two,” he writes.

And yet that approach is why, despite having what is undeniably the most talented team in the country this year, Kentucky is destined for an early-round exit in the NCAA. And that’s also why, if Calipari has a couple more seasons like these last two, his days may be numbered in Lexington. Yes, he’s only two years removed from a national championship, but Kentucky’s fan base—known as Big Blue Nation—is a notoriously demanding bunch. Just ask Tubby Smith, whose own national championship and more than 260 wins during his 10 years as Kentucky’s coach weren’t enough to stop him from being run out of the Commonwealth.

In Players First, Calipari ponders a hypothetical question that is supposed to highlight the tension at the heart of college basketball today. “Would I be happy if we won a national championship one season and nobody got drafted?” he writes. “I would be happy for the program but disappointed for the kids. I wouldn’t feel like I had done my job for them.” It’s a noble sentiment, but it’s a bogus one: Like every coach at a big-time college basketball program, Calipari was hired to win national championships, not just produce a half-dozen future NBA millionaires each year. He undoubtedly knows this, and for a while, it looked like he’d found a formula that allowed him to accomplish both goals. There’s a reason, after all, that Players First is slated to be published next month: When it went to press, Calipari thought it would be coming out on the heels of, if not a 40-0 season, one that at least ended with a Final Four appearance. It was designed to put a philosophical exclamation point on an athletic achievement.

But the longstanding logic of college basketball—that three- and four-year players win more championships than one- and two-year ones—has proven surprisingly and stubbornly resilient. That’s not a triumph of high-mindedness: The senior player is oftentimes getting just as much, or as little, of an education as the one-and-doner. It’s just reality. And Calipari is in the process of discovering that no one puts much stock in a coach’s philosophizing off the court unless his teams are winning on it.