The John Calipari Era Ends with a Whimper

Matt Jonesby:Matt Jones04/08/24

KySportsRadio

I always thought that John Calipari was destined to leave Kentucky in some insanely memorable fashion. He was a towering figure, a college basketball rock star who engulfed every room he entered and made Lexington the center of college basketball for over a decade. On a personal level, his emergence at Kentucky helped take a lawyer’s moderate college basketball blog and turn it into a life-changing career. Just as his entrances were memorable (watching a video of a door hoping he would emerge, a triumphant opening press conference, and Wall, Boogie, and others heading to town), my assumption was that his exit, whether good or bad, was destined to be large and transcendent. It’s just the Calipari way.

However, throughout this season, the larger-than-life figure who for years could do no wrong looked a lifetime away. His tone was antagonistic most of the year, even in victory. After impressive wins over North Carolina, Auburn, and Tennessee, he took less time to celebrate than he did to counter criticism. His joy in coaching the team (which was real) only seemed to be matched by his glee in proving in his mind that his critics had been wrong all along. And when he lost, he deflected, scolded, and countered all questions with a dismissive “We’re Built for March” proclamation. Calipari did not seem like a coach “enjoying the ride” as he had so often promoted that his players and fans do. He seemed like an individual waiting for his final chance to win the battle against unspoken enemies. The fun the players had on the court seemed to be far removed from the man standing on the sideline.

I would like to say that I was shocked that the Calipari era was going to end this year, but actually, it was the opposite. Standing on the court in Pittsburgh after the Oakland loss, I didn’t think there was any way he could return to the Kentucky sidelines. The majority of the fanbase had turned against him, the administration he had ignored for years seemed to have had it with him and most importantly, the new era of College Basketball, NIL, and Transfer Portal was fundamentally against his “talent wins over everything” basketball philosophy. It seemed absolutely impossible to me that he could get past the toxicity of where his relationship with BBN stood and come back for one more go of it. It seemed Jack Gohlke had built upon the body blows of the COVID season, Doug Edert and Jerome Tang to deliver one final, convincing knockout.

But then came the text late Sunday night after the NCAA Tournament’s Opening Weekend. “He is staying…one final run. Told ya.” The sender was one of Calipari’s most loyal supporters and a person who had been very upset with me over my recent criticism of his friend. “Cal is about to show you why you were wrong to doubt…wait and see.”

The narrative took shape. Calipari would come back with a renewed focus on bringing in some older players and potentially, changing his opinion about asking possible NBA draftees to return and allow for some continuity. Calipari went on his radio show and said while the loss hurt him more than we could know, he vowed to get the program back to where it deserved to be. A staged TV interview was broadcast where Calipari and his Athletic Director (whom he had treated often with disinterest during his most successful times) gave a message of unity and a promise that they would both leave making sure UK Basketball was in a wonderful place. I watched the interview with admiration for Barnhart, not necessarily because of the content of what he was saying (the entire thing was just Cal/Mitch coach-speak with generic hope for a better future) but because he was sitting there at all. After years of Calipari going it alone and intentionally leaving him out, now Cal needed Barnhart and Mitch gave him the life raft to save face. It takes a lot of character to make that decision, especially when an outsider can’t help but wonder if it would have been done for him in the other direction.

I thought at that point, we would all be ready for one last Calipari ride. A team full of star freshmen, maybe a couple of returnees (Wagner leading the charge?), and a few hand-picked transfers and Calipari had the chance to show all his critics that he could win big once again, while doing it distinctly his way, analytics be damned. The final act would be major and whatever happened, success or failure, would be definitive, proving either Swaggy Cal was still the man who could get all the talent and win the title or validating his critics who said the passage of time and modern basketball had left the Hall of Famer behind. A resolution was coming and no matter the result, we were all in for one last big show.

But instead, the opposite happened. The Calipari era did not end with a Final Four celebration or one last season of inconsistency and March frustration. Instead, it ended with a tweet from a TV reporter in Little Rock saying that he was retreating from the best job in college basketball to go to Fayetteville and call the Hogs. Even though his Athletic Director had risked his credibility with the fanbase in order to show unification with him and make a final stand together, it wasn’t enough for Calipari who followed the chicken nugget money to supposedly greener pastures.

It is a testament to how much Calipari wanted away from the gold standard program that he not only left, but he left for what is being reported to be less money and an in-conference foe that will require return trips to Rupp Arena. At the location that he had often said “wasn’t for everybody” and where he told players “I can’t hide you,” Calipari decided to give in to what he had often told his players to avoid. Everyone knew that many Kentucky fans were ready for a change. But the tweet from Little Rock suggests that the only person who wanted a new day more than the BBN masses was John Calipari himself.

My guess is Calipari does well at Arkansas. He will be reinvigorated to perform to the best of his abilities and he likely will be able to implement some changes to his personnel decisions, coaching staff, and style of play going forward that his pride prevented from him doing here. He will have all the NIL money he needs and a fanbase ready for big-time success. But in all likelihood, it won’t be enough to match or even come close to his greatest successes at Kentucky. His run from 2010-2017 isn’t going to be repeated in Bud Walton. Instead, he will probably be slightly better than he was here from 2020-2024, but not able to reach the gold standard he so often guaranteed. He will be Calipari, much better than most and always a factor in the college basketball world, but as Pitino and Tubby learned before him, it will never be like it was with BBN.

John Calipari leaves here with a ton of success. One National Title, four Final Fours, six SEC regular-season titles, six SEC Tournament titles, and 50 NBA players in 15 years. A great run. But he will also leave here with the worst regular season in UK history, the worst 4-year postseason run in UK history, and a fanbase ready to move on to whatever is next.

Like all major changes, I always knew the Calipari era would end. I knew the glory years of Wall, Knight, Davis, MKG Randle, the Twins, Willie, Karl, Booker, Ulis, Murray, Fox, Monk, Bam, etc couldn’t go on forever. But I never expected it to end like this. From the Wall Dance, the Brow, and Drake to a last video of walking his dog down Richmond Road, the larger-than-life Calipari era has ended with a whimper.

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