The 2017-18 basketball season has been tough. Turmoil and inconsistency has plagued these young Wildcats for the majority of the schedule, and as we enter the home stretch, there’s little evidence to lead us to believe it will change. This is not a year that will end in John Calipari preening for the cameras on NBA Draft night. There will not be multiple lottery picks selected from this roster in June. Recruiting is usually where troubled fans find solace when they lack confidence in the current edition of Wildcats, but even that has been stolen away as we incredulously look on while Duke greedily hoovers up all of the elite talent. With so many concerns and so few silver-linings, how long before Blue & White fans see nothing but red?
The Ousting of Cal…
Here at Big Blue Banter, we’ve asked if it was time to panic. For the purposes of this article, say we do. Say we panic. Say we forget logic. Hold tight to frustration! Let your anger run free!!
Big Blue Nation, let’s strap Joe B. Hall to the hood of our car, sharpen our pitchforks, light our torches, and run John, Ellen, Brad, Brad’s chest tattoo, and anything else Calipari out of town!!! Anarchy!!!! RIOT!!!!!
Now, as the embers of our rage-fire die out, take a beat and ask yourself: “Who?”
Who could replace John Calipari?
Could someone do better?
Who could UK even attract?
Well, we’ve come this far, so let’s play out this dark fantasy (oh, and can someone untie Joe B?).
Succeed and Proceed, Indeed…
Before exploring any replacements, a preamble concerning the accomplishments of one John Vincent Calipari in the Bluegrass is in order. Over a 26 year career, he has won 78% of his games. The 59 year old coach, in his 9th season at UK, boasts a 266-59 (82%) record in his 8 full seasons in Lexington. His tenure in Lexington has at present yielded 1 National Title, 2 National Title Game Appearances, 4 Final Fours, 6 Elite Eights, 5 SEC regular season titles, and 5 SEC tourney championships. He has steered the Cats to 31 wins on average each year.
And then there’s the historic recruiting. Calipari has seen each of his last eight recruiting classes ranked #1 or #2 in the country. A One-And-Done pioneer, Cal is also the only coach to ever have four #1 overall picks (3 at UK, 1 at Memphis), five 1st Round selections in a draft, and have 6 total selections in one draft. All tallied, there have been 34 Wildcats drafted with 41 playing professionally.
Point is, that’s a lot of winning. A lot of winning. Like one of the best to ever do it winning. Calipari brings in talent and succeeds with it at such an elite level, we may never see it at Kentucky or anywhere else again. Ever. We probably won’t even be able to fully appreciate the Coach Cal era until we view it against the annals of history, yet we already know the past 8 seasons have been historic. Put simply, John Calipari is damn near irreplaceable.
Big Blue Nation Repudiation…
Alas, remember our torches and pitchforks (did anyone ever get Joe B?). A replacement must be found. The Kentucky job is one of the most prestigious when available, so almost anyone who is anyone will be seen as an option. However, there are some elite names we can quickly eliminate such as Bill Self (Kansas) and Jay Wright (Villanova), who could make the argument that a UK move would be lateral at best. Sean Miller (Arizona) could be added to that list, but he also has arguably the largest incentive of any coach to not bolt written into his contract. While his base salary ($2.9 million/year) is well below Calipari ($8 million/year) and other top coaches, he will trigger a retention bonus from a mysterious “Longevity Fund” (set up by an anonymous donor) that gets triggered in 2020. This means that whatever comprises this fund is valuable enough to get Miller to agree to a lower yearly salary and it would then be voided if he were to leave Tucson in the next two years. It would take a lot to turn Miller’s head this close to that payoff. Besides, for all his five-star recruits, pre-season hype, and Elite Eight finishes, the level of success demonstrated at Arizona is decidedly below UK fans’ standards.
There is also a group of coaches who have spurned recent overtures from big-time programs before and seem content where they are, even if Kentucky were to come calling. Mark Few, who has been at Gonzaga since 1989, and Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) both seem perfectly happy to say “thanks, but no thanks.” Marshall also recently signed a $3.3 million/year extension to remain living among the prairies and cornstalks, and he was quite vocal regarding his contentment in Wichita. Same goes for Chris Mack at Xavier. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Mack played for Xavier University before taking his first coaching position in 1999 at… Xavier University. In fact, Chris Mack has only ever held one position outside of Xavier for his entire career, when he was an assistant at Wake Forest for the late Skip Prosser. While his success since being named head coach for the Bulldogs in 2010 makes him a candidate to make the move 82.7 miles south, Lexington will never be and most likely cannot compete with “home.”
Call Me, Maybe…
We can further pare down our list by removing coaches that are seemingly viable, solid options but who only recently took on a bigger challenge and have yet to prove themselves. Bryce Drew (43 yrs. old, Vanderbilt) and Archie Miller (39, Indiana) fall into this category. Concerning Archie, we would enjoy taking Indiana’s coach, but we would really want big brother Sean. Two other brothers worth a furtive glance are Dan Hurley (45, Rhode Island) and Bob Hurley, Jr. (46, Arizona State). Bobby, a former Duke Blue Devils point guard (and Duke-most-punchable-faces hall-of-famer), is a leaf off the Mike Krzyzewski coaching tree who also calls Naismith Hall of Fame and New Jersey high school coaching legend Bob Sr. dad. The Sun Devil’s recent successes resulted in Bob, Jr. rewarded with a $2.1 million/year extension, but it’s still far too early to know if he can keep Arizona State in the top half of the Pac-12, let alone win the SEC and compete for National Titles annually.
Speaking of the SEC, we can also save ourselves some time by avoiding any established in-conference coaches. Losing to Kentucky in recruiting and on the court over the years has inevitably left a bad taste, and they will see blood in the water when they hear of our Calipari excommunication (seriously guys, grab Joe B!). Avery Johnson (Alabama), Rick Barnes (Tennessee), Frank Martin (South Carolina), and anyone else who is a known, established SEC commodity will be looking to stick it to BBN long before entertaining any pact with Kentucky. It’s for the best when you consider that there’s really only one coach who could adequately fill our pretend coaching void, and we would never touch him. If I were to tell you there is a brash, kind of smug New Englander coming to town who could reel in recruits, schmooze like a master used-car salesman, flourish in the lime-light, and cater to our media hungry masses, you’d excitedly envision the second coming of Rick Pitino or John Calipari. Then, when I told you his name is Bruce Pearl, you’d recoil in horror. Yes, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl ticks a lot of the boxes that make for a successful UK coach. However, due to NCAA violations past, present, and future, we would run far, far away.
So… Much… Swiping… Left…
Expanding our search beyond college is looking more and more necessary (Is this Cal ousting sounding like a bad idea yet?!?! Joe B. is getting rope burn…). There are three candidates among the NBA candidates, but the chances of snaring any of them are slim. Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan is something of a fan favorite at Kentucky despite never playing here. Nonetheless, when you ask fans who they’d like to replace Coach Cal, Donovan’s is one of the more popular names you hear. He had monstrous success at Florida, winning two National Titles and going 467-186 in 19 seasons, so we know he could navigate SEC waters and helm UK successfully. However, having only signed a $6 million/year deal to move to the NBA two seasons ago, Kentucky and its lack of emotional ties can’t offer much incentive to pull him away. Plus, the Thunder have reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. Billy the Kid would probably prefer to see this foray into the pro ranks through a bit longer if he ever even went back to college. While there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the summer off-season for OKC with PG13 and Melo, best guess here is that Donovan will stay with the Thunder at least 1-2 more seasons and possibly take another gig in the NBA before entertaining a ballyhooed NCAA-level return. The other name you hear most often is Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. It’s not hard to see why. At 41 years old, he’s one of the best coaches in the NBA. He’s relaxed, soft-spoken, intelligent, thoughtful, and infinitely likable. He’s like a head coach version of Jim Halpert, but instead of pranking Dwight on The Office he makes other teams look silly on a nightly basis in the NBA. Unfortunately, the reasons that make Stevens so attractive are also why he wouldn’t be a good fit for the Kentucky. He doesn’t need or want the spotlight on him. He doesn’t schmooze. His success at Butler was due to player/team development, not elite recruits. In the NBA, Stevens doesn’t have to bother with recruiting, and if he were to come to UK he wouldn’t recruit on a Calipari level. The demands of the UK job are not for everyone, and even though Stevens is a great coach, his personality wouldn’t allow him to ever be comfortable. Tipping the scales is also the fact that the Celtics happen to be one of the most talented young teams with the brightest future in the NBA. One last name for consideration is Luke Walton. The 37 year old upstart coach of the Los Angeles Lakers would have no problem with the bright lights. A former NBA and college player, Walton started his coaching career under Steve Kerr and quickly became a scorching hot name for vacant HC positions. Honestly, Walton’s out of Kentucky’s league. Life would have to take a pretty sizable crap on him for us to realistically have a shot, but he’s worth mentioning because he currently happens to coach Lonzo Ball. It’s Lonzo’s father Lavar that’s the real problem. Luke has pedigree and is, by all accounts, a player’s coach who has youth on his side but he also has the misfortune of Lavar Ball second-guessing and stalking him like an emotionally abusive alpha wolf. If Lavar ever chews him up and spits him out, UK should be there to break Walton’s fall.
Chasing the Hot, Younger Model…
Before we go back to reality, where the Wildcats are still led by John Calipari (Someone poke Joe B. with a stick), let’s exhaust one last group of candidates. Kentucky has had only six head coaches in the modern era (post 1930), and ideally the new hire would be of the age and quality to last 10-15 plus seasons. Finding someone aged 40 or under with the bonafides to handle a blue-blood, elite-level job is near impossible, but there are a handful of options, albeit with flaws. Let’s go ahead and shout a big “No!” through a megaphone at all of Duke’s assistants, which include Jeff Capel, Jon Scheyer, Nate James, and newbie Nolan Smith. While several other schools continue to fall all over each other to secure the signatures of Krzyzewski-assistant-du jour, let us remember that we are Kentucky and we are not now or ever desperate enough to entertain swallowing the amount of pride it would take to secure a former Dookie’s signature. The list of viable names is pretty minuscule here. Josh Pastner (40, Georgia Tech) is an even harder “No!” than the Duke assistants even before his recent sexual misconduct allegations, and Richard Pitino (35, Minnesota) would be a hard sell regardless of his last name. Pitino’s season-to-season inconsistency left him on the hot seat before the start of the last two seasons. Shaka Smart, at age 40 just meets our age cutoff, but his three seasons at Texas have produced more concerns than success. After successfully transitioning from assistant on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida to the head post with Virginia Commonwealth, Smart decided to accept the Longhorns’ big money ($3.1 million/year) deal, taking his HAVOC defense with him to Austin. A 46-43 (52%) record has taken some of the shine off of Smart, as has his ability to sign five-star talent and inability to develop said talent. For those who complain that John Calipari doesn’t develop the talent at his disposal, Shaka Smart would be that nightmare come true. While it’s true Smart hasn’t had the quantity of talent Calipari can boast, he has done far less with the quality he has been able to collect. The last up and coming name is one to remember: Will Wade of LSU. Brought in to clean up the mess previous coach Johnny Jones left, the 34 year old Wade looks better the closer you look. A 103-52 (66%) career record isn’t so bad when you consider that three out of five seasons were rebuild jobs, and each team has improved in his 2nd year in charge. He took a roster cobbled together with Johnny Jones’ used toilet paper, convinced Tremont Waters (#43 in 2017) to commit, and coached the Tigers to 14-10 so far. He’s flexed his recruiting muscles further with a 2018 class that includes the #18, #24, #30, and #54 ranked players. It’s not a stretch to expect that, under Wade, LSU will improve on the 2017-18 season. We will see if he’s able to capitalize on recruiting momentum and reel in the biggest fish. Depending on how the next few years pan out, we could very well be looking at the next Wildcats coach. Or, maybe we see the next Josh Pastner. And there’s the rub with Will Wade: there’s a whole lot to like, but it’s far too early to know what his career will look like.
Was It All a Dream?
As we reach the end of this crazy, winding path, one thing should be clear- John Calipari is UK basketball, just as UK basketball is John Calipari. When sifting through candidates with an honest inventory, the list isn’t as big as you’d expect: six or so names, all with questionable viability. Whether it be someone we can’t ultimately prise away (Stevens, Mack) or a fresh face in need of more seasoning (A. Miller, Wade), there is no like-for-like swap for who we have. It’s ok to be frustrated. It’s ok to get angry. But BBN, let’s not lose forget ourselves. John Calipari is our guy.
(plus Joe B is really starting to smell)