Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 4/8/15

By Darrell Horwitz

A 40–0 season and an NCAA championship would have been the cherry on top of the sundae for Kentucky coach John Calipari, but even winning the title would not have given him the credit he deserves. With a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans, winning the championship is expected. Anything less and he’s considered a failure.

There’s only one way for Calipari to win, and that’s to go to the one place where he failed: the NBA. After a successful career at UMass, he jumped to the NBA, taking over the New Jersey Nets in 1996. He was fired when his team got off to a 3–17 start in 1998. That left him with a career mark of just 72–112.

He resurrected his career at Memphis, and parlayed that success into his current job at Kentucky. But while his record is very good, his reputation is another matter. At both UMass in 1996, and Memphis in 2008, his teams were forced to vacate their accomplishments due to violations.

His success at Kentucky is unquestionable with four Final Four appearances, but it’s the way that he has done it that has come under scrutiny. Dubbed a “snake oil salesman” by many for his recruiting of one-and-done players, Calipari seems to be the sole target when others, including Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, have benefited from recruiting those same type players.

Calipari’s Wildcats won the title in 2012 with one-and-done Anthony Davis leading the way. Last year, his team reached the championship game in Julius Randle’s only season. Despite a 38–0 record this season, they were upset by Wisconsin before reaching the final game, but there will be more players saying goodbye after just one season at Kentucky.

This merry-go-round can continue for Calipari as long as he wants it to. He runs a basketball factory at Kentucky, recruiting and churning out NBA players like Doritos manufactures chips. Players are attracted to his program because of the exposure they get, and the knowledge that the NBA will be biting as soon as they declare for the draft. Calipari has to ask himself if it’s all worth it.

He will never receive the recognition he deserves coaching in college because of the talent he recruits. He will always have critics, but he has a gift that is perfect for the NBA. He’s a great recruiter and players want to play for him. He can become the next Pat Riley.

Despite his failure his first go-around in the NBA, he will have suitors. Cleveland was sniffing around last year before LeBron James came back home and David Blatt was lucky enough to land the job. The Cavs are playing well, but everything is predicated on the playoffs. If they win a title, it’s all silent on the Western front. But if they fail to get out of the Eastern Conference, does Calipari’s name come up again to lead the team? LeBron has had some questions about Blatt, who previously coached overseas and wasn’t as familiar with the way the game is played here.

In Chicago, coach Tom Thibodeau is at war with the front office. Most sources don’t think he will finish out his contract, and many, including this writer, don’t think he will be back next year.

The Bulls would be an attractive destination for Calipari. He can reunite with Derrick Rose, and maybe resurrect his career. Since his numerous injuries, Rose doesn’t seem to be the same player, not just physically, but mentally. Maybe Cal can invigorate Rose. They have a great relationship and respect for each other.

Chicago has a deep team, and like Thibodeau, Calipari stresses defense. If his minions at Kentucky don’t play defense, he goes to the next guy. In the Windy City, there are choices, and maybe Calipari will give more of them an opportunity to play than Thibodeau does.

Another reason why Chicago would be an attractive destination is that Anthony Davis will be a free agent in two years. Having played at Kentucky and being from Chicago, the Bulls would make for a sensible destination. The Bulls have never been very good at luring free agents. That would change with Calipari.

There is one more destination that would be a good option—the Los Angeles Lakers. The once formidable Lakers are currently one of the worst teams in basketball, but La La Land is always a hot spot for players. If they get lucky with the lottery, they could have the first pick in the draft. Julius Randle will also be back next year after missing his first season with an injury. Maybe the Lakers can become Kentucky West if they end up with Karl-Anthony Towns with that first pick if he declares for the draft.

LA could also be an option for Derrick Rose in two years when his contract is up. He might be tired of getting bashed in his hometown. He spends a lot of time in Los Angeles in the offseason, and enjoys the anonymity there compared to Chicago. A frequent workout buddy of his, Kevin Love, is also fond of LA, and he’s a free agent after this season. With Calipari coaching the Lakers, they become an even more attractive destination than normal.

There are many reasons why Calipari should return to the NBA. Redemption is at the top of the list. Bill Belichick failed his first head coaching stint in Cleveland and is now a coaching legend in New England. Pete Carroll had two strikes against him in the NFL when he went to Seattle, and now has a Super Bowl ring of his own.

Calipari has one black mark on his record and that’s in the NBA. No matter how much he wins at Kentucky, it will always be there, mocking him that he wasn’t good enough for the highest league in the land. It’s all about the ego.

So the question for Calipari is: Do you want to be the big man on campus, or do you want to finally make it in the big leagues?

This article first appeared on The Sports Post and was syndicated with permission.


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