Mon. March 26
Coach John Calipari: A Rogue Hero
Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats came into the 2012 NCAA tournament as the number-one seed, and nothing that has happened in first four rounds has called that into question. With much of their main competition either undermanned or already eliminated, Calipari’s Wildcats are the favorite to win. And it might ruin his legacy.
Coach Calipari is the anti-NCAA. His previous Final Four appearances with UMass and Memphis have all been vacated because of recruiting violations. The NCAA prides itself on molding well-rounded individuals, “almost all” of whom “will go pro in something other than sports.” Calipari prides himself on molding NBA prospects. Naked about the mercenary principles of his program, he recruits the most talented players in the country by promising to showcase them and maximize their draft position. After five of his players were drafted in the first round in 2010, he called it “the greatest moment in Kentucky basketball history.”
Even the basic style of play at Kentucky is heretical. College basketball is billed as a team game in which no player is bigger than the system. Calipari’s “dribble drive motion” offense spreads four players around the perimeter, successively isolating each against his defender until one of them has an open shot. More rigid systems reduce players to automatons processing a set number of variables to choose between a set number of options. The “dribble drive motion” relies on players’ size, speed, creativity, spontaneous decision-making–their personality. The system is precisely as big as the players. It reeks of the sort of undisciplined individualism that NCAA partisans associate with the NBA.
Nevertheless, we’re fascinated by Calipari. From Sports Illustrated stories and ESPN interviews, to blog posts about the faces he makes and Onion infographics, he’s easily the most discussed coach in the NCAA.
He illustrates the gulf between, as Joan Didion put it when describing the weird obsession with the intensely antisocial Howard Hughes, “what we officially admire and secretly desire.” In a world in which the NCAA self-righteously declares itself the defender of the purity of the “student-athlete,” which means that players can’t make any money whatsoever from their efforts while the monopolistic NCAA makes billions, it’s actually refreshing to see a coach who’s so brazen about his relationship with his players. Given his success at producing first-round draft picks, the players benefit even more than he does.
And, while it’s one of the core axioms of NCAA fandom that upsets are always objectively the optimal outcome during March Madness, too many upsets can lead to painfully boring basketball. Calipari’s teams are compulsively watchable precisely because they have an overload of talent. His Memphis team lost in the 2008 championship game, but it was one of the most compelling games in recent memory. Whatever we say about the importance of teamwork, individual talent adds to the stakes–it’s the difference between drama and melodrama.
It’s not too much of a stretch to frame him as a sort of rogue hero. He violates the arbitrary rules of a monolithic, vocationally hypocritical, self-important bureaucracy for whom virtue is a PR strategy, and gets away with it. Or, at least, the bureaucracy is so large and clumsy that by the time it realizes he’s cheated, he’s already at a bigger school with a better job.
But all of this might be ruined by a championship. This could force the college basketball world to finally, formally ostracize him (we can tolerate vacating unsuccessful Final Four runs, but not having to scratch names from the official NCAA history). Or it could lead the NCAA and the major news outlets to embrace him, and start following a policy of ignoring his superfluity of naughtiness. Either way, for the sake of the John Calipari I know and secretly love, I hope he loses the national championship.