There is no doubt that John Calipari is a polarizing figure. When it comes to opinions about Calipari, a myriad of emotions arise. You do not have to look far to find them either. Big Blue Nation (99% of them anyway) loves the guy and realizes his greatness. They understand he is the best coach the University could ask for. Rivals absolutely despise him and have nicknames like Paypal Cal, CALamari, and many other less clever ones. We all know the reason behind that; jealousy, envy, etc.
In the middle, however, you will find a lot of varying thoughts. The ones ignorant of the actual situations of his past think he is a cheater because of the Memphis and UMass situations. They will take the words of others as gospel and run with it as if *they* know it is true.
Others know of his philanthropy and players first mentality and respect him greatly. They know he is a good guy who is not running a program that puts winning above all. They know his number 1 focus (to a fault it can be argued) is changing the lives of his players and their families. They know he sees his position as bigger than a game, and respect it.
However, this piece is about one thing; Coaching Results. There is a narrative that is perpetuated by a substantial amount of people (some of Big Blue Nation included) that Calipari is not a great coach. The knock on him is that he is simply the beneficiary of recruiting the best players. They will opine that virtually anyone could take his talent and do what he does. He just ‘rolls the ball out there‘ for the burger boys, so to speak.
While this is the easy, albeit lazy direction to take a Cal criticism, it is also short-sighted. Yes, I will fully agree that Coach Calipari annually brings in the most talented players. However, he also loses the most talent annually, and it is not even close. The latter never seems to accompany the former when people’s opinions/criticisms manifest.
There are a number of flaws in making a blanket statement that assembling the most talent should equal championships, or that Cal is able to accomplish what he does by simply ‘rolling the ball out there’. For Example:
- Winning 6 straight to win a title (with zero margin for error) is hard… very very hard, and a lot of times the ‘best’ team does not win it all. Since 2005, the overall #1 seed has won the championship only 3 times out of 13 tournaments (23%). Florida in 2007, Kentucky in 2012, and Louisville* in 2013.
Regarding the piece I'm working on… If only Titles matter and the most talented teams should win the most, then someone explain why THE TOP OVERALL SEED of the NCAA tournament has only won it all 3 of 13 tournaments (and UK was one of the 3 actually). #rhetorical
— Big Blue Banter (@BigBlueBanter) January 28, 2018
- Talent does not equal ‘good team‘, it takes some phenomenal coaching to get a collection of talent to sacrifice themselves for the good of the program.
- Cal has 5 months to turn kids into men to be ready for a March run. A lot of coaches cannot do it in years, much less in months.
The truth is that Calipari’s coaching ability gets tossed aside because people assume his teams should win it all every year on talent alone. He may have one of the most talented teams each season and sometimes THE most talented team. However, the best team is much tougher to produce.
This assumption leads Calipari’s teams to be ranked highly in the pre-season. It is one thing to have the assumed ‘best team‘ before a season, but it is a whole other thing to have THE number 1 overall seed going into the tournament.
At that point, a team is considered to be the best team standing. They are also given the supposed easiest path to winning it all, yet it has only happened 3 of 13 aforementioned times.
To clarify, there have been 13 tournaments with a #1 overall seed. The team the committee feels is the best in the field. That team gets the easiest path to the tournament, yet only 3 times has the overall #1 seed won it all, and one of those 3 was Kentucky in 2012.
Stop saying the best/most talented team *should* win every year… it is patently false and you look silly and uneducated if you do.
JUST THE NUMBERS
So, what truly does matter?
It is rhetorical, obviously, the scoreboard and win column are what really matters. So, let’s look at coaching production for the top coaches. I looked at the coaches that have won a title since Cal has been at UK, except for UConn because it was Jim Calhoun (retired) and Kevin Ollie (one-hit wonder). I added Bill Self because so many people actually think he might be the best coach in America, and he did beat Cal in a title game once.
Since Calipari has been at UK, no other coach has more total wins (through this weekend) and only Bill Self has more conference titles.
I am going to go ahead and get the opposition excuses out of the way. Let me guess, the SEC has been weak for years and that is why he has so many wins and conference titles. Fine, I will indulge that and relent. So, let’s look at NCAA Tournament accomplishments.
Nobody has more Final Fours, Elite Eights, or Sweet Sixteens than Calipari. Only Coach K has more titles. We will break down his tournament numbers at the end, spoiler alert; yikes.
Haters can make a few weak arguments against Calipari here. You can say that A) only championships matter and B) that he should have more of everything because he has more talent.
It is reactionary and short-sighted, but I will also relent here and allow the excuses to stand, for the sake of argument only.
A MORE MEANINGFUL ANALYSIS
Now that we have gotten the standard opposition arguments against Cal out of the way… let’s look at the crux of my research. If you really want to look at a coaches ability to adjust, succeed, and be able to handle pressure; look at their performance in the NCAA tournament relative to their opportunity.
What I mean by this is looking at a team’s seeding vs. their finish. If you garner a 1-seed, you are being projected as a final four team. 2-seed means you should be in the elite-8 and so on.
The only nuance would be for instance a 5-seed, that means they are a ‘top-20‘ team per the committee, meaning they fit between the sweet 16 and round of 32. I gave the team the benefit of the doubt and backed them into the ‘attainable’ one. Ergo a 5 seed would be projected to be in the round of 32 and no further.
The next part involves assigning a performance value to the finish vs. the seed. This is easy, you have six rounds, meaning six possibilities. If a team was a 2-seed (Elite 8 projection) and makes it to the sweet 16, that is one level below their seed projection, meaning a -1. If that same team loses in the first round, that is a -3.
The same applies if you exceed your seed. Say that same 2-seed goes to a national title game but loses. They get a plus-1 for meeting expectations, plus-1 for the one level above the elite 8, and plus-1 for making it to a title game.
This is a deeper and I think a more accurate way to judge a coach’s ‘ability’ to affect the game. Being able to meet or exceed expectations is something a fanbase takes to heart and is ultimately a career definer.
You might say that basing it on seeding allows for mistakes in seeding by the committee. While there are annual seeding mistakes and some horrendous ones, generally the top-4 seeds are very accurate. The success of the analyzed coaches usually correlates with that range of seeding, meaning we have a pretty accurate data set to work with.
With that being said, here are the results:
I honestly did not expect Calipari to be at the top of this list when I began this exercise. However, when you look back at the coaching jobs he did with the 2011 Final Four Team (4-seed) and the 2014 National Runner-Up team (8-seed), while only coming up short of their seed projection twice… it makes sense.
Calipari has coached to his seed projection three times, exceeded seed projections by 5 rounds, and only fell short of seeding by 2 total rounds. Add in the two title games and national title and he leads the way with a +9 coach effect.
One of the oddities of my research was Roy Williams. If you look at his results, he coaches to his seed level almost every single year. He only underperformed relative to seed one time, and even then he made the elite 8 as a one-seed. The rest of the time he coached to seed and has the national title to go with the consistency as well.
How amazing is the night and day performance of Bill Self? He is only one total win behind Calipari and has the most conference titles. Every single year they have been a 1 or 2-seed going into the big dance. However, they have underperformed continuously. The only year they did exceed seed was the 2012 season when Kentucky took them down.
It is apparent that the moment March Madness starts, Kansas becomes a paper tiger. Bill Self is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personified for Basketball.
Jay Wright and Villanova seem to be the next big thing in terms of arguing for experience on a team vs. one-and-dones. However, Wright is generally pretty bad in March himself. The past four years they have been a 1 or a 2-seed every year, but only made it out of the first weekend once.
The National Title he has is impressive, and it was certainly earned. However, to be a 1/2-seed for three years and not even make it out of the first weekend has to be disconcerting for Nova fans.
Cal vs. Coach K
The argument of Cal should win more than anyone due to talent can be an apples to apples argument by simply comparing Calipari to Coach K. K has imitated Cal’s one and done philosophy and in a lot of ways, the two programs are interchangeable in the ‘talent’ vs. coaching argument.
Since Coach K has been imitating Cal on the recruiting trail (and actually beating him lately) the two programs have been 1 and 2 in bringing in the best talent. This means you can look at the two programs and really see them side by side and see how the two most talented teams perform under their respective coach.
When comparing Cal and K with just numbers, it is a no-brainer who has performed better since Cal has been at UK.
Coach Cal has had a few bad losses in March; the West Virginia one with Wall and company, the loss to UConn in the title game, and the Indiana loss with Ulis come to mind. Cal also missed the tournament altogether after losing Nerlens Noel in 2013.
Those Calipari losses pale in comparison to Coach K losing as a 1-seed against 8-seed Michigan, crapping the bed as a 2-seed against 15-seed Lehigh, collapsing as a 3-seed vs. 14-seed Mercer, and last season’s 2-seed loss vs. 7-seed South Carolina, blowing a big lead and letting South Carolina score 65 points in the 2nd half.
Imagine for a moment if Calipari had those March Losses on his resume? I am not sure even a second title would even that out for the fanbase. Maybe if they had completed the 40-0 season, maybe he would get a pass for the prior paragraph results under his resume.
If you want to say that Cal cannot be compared to teams like North Carolina or Louisville, or Villanova because he always has better talent, that is fine, but you have to take into account Duke’s performance over that time and rationally compare them.
Yes, Duke does have two national titles to UK’s one, however, they have the same amount of title appearances, yet Cal has more of EVERYTHING else. More wins, conference titles, sweet 16s, elite 8s, Final Fours, and draft picks.
Kentucky and Cal have holistically performed better than Duke and Coach K and you cannot reasonably argue it. If you want to take the hard stance that K’s two titles are superior, fine, but you have to admit that Cal has dominated literally everything else.
The simple truth, and a lot will not admit it, is that in addition to being one of the two best recruiters in America, Calipari is also one of the best coaches as well. He does not just ‘roll the ball out there’.
The narrative is weak, lazy, unfounded, and plain embarrassing for the person uttering it. Stop it.
You can argue that Cal is second to Self as a regular season coach, you can argue that K’s two titles are the main differentiator and more important in the postseason. What you cannot argue with is the story being told by the numbers as a whole… and the aforementioned numbers tell the story that since Calipari has been in Lexington; he has been the best production coach in America, plain and simple.
So, for you few members of Big Blue Nation who are unhappy with him, or if you are one of the rare few (yes there are some) who think he should move on, please tell me who you would rather see at UK? Feel free to take the blind resume challenge below and pick a coach.
Spoiler alert, Cal is coach A… and Coach A is the best in a walk. If you are in anyway unhappy with Cal’s results, I am guessing you would be much less happy with any of the other coaches below.
There is no better coach for this program, period. If you are a member of Big Blue Nation and do not realize that… well, get a pet, get a hobby, or get a prescription for happy pills because you are the problem.