John Calipari had a very good week. Not only is his Kentucky team knocking on the door for a #1 NCAA Tournament seed, but the highly venerated coach of the Wildcats also celebrated a rather momentous personal milestone. Yes, Coach Cal turned sixty today, entering a decade of life known more for vacations rather than victories, retirement rather than recruiting, and time-off rather than time-outs. Whereas many of his contemporaries have already succumbed to the rigors of the cutthroat profession, Coach Cal soldiers on, unfazed by the youthful glut of up-and-comers looking to put him out to pasture.
Kentucky’s recent victories over Vanderbilt and Florida gave Calipari—the current dean of the SEC coaches—bragging rights over Bryce Drew and Mike White, two youthful prodigies who only recently joined the coaching fraternity. When asked whether he enjoyed being the old guy teaching these young whippersnappers a thing or two, Coach Cal feigned umbrage and indignation. “I’m allowed to say that (that I’m old), not you,” he joked. “We’ve got terrific coaches in this league. Guys are really committed to their teams and to the game…Mike (White) is a good coach. Bryce (Drew) is a good coach.”
Including White and Drew, eleven out of the fourteen current coaches in the league are younger than Calipari. Will Wade of LSU (age 36) is the youngest, followed by White (age 41), Drew (age 44), Cuonzo Martin of Missouri (age 47), Tom Crean of Georgia (age 52), Frank Martin of South Carolina (age 52), Avery Johnson of Alabama (age 53), Billy Kennedy of Texas A&M (age 55), Bruce Pearl of Auburn (age 58), Kermit Davis of Mississippi (age 59), and Mike Anderson of Arkansas (age 59).
That leaves only Ben Howland of Mississippi State (age 61) and Rick Barnes of Tennessee (age 64) as SEC coaches older than Calipari.
Does age matter in the coaching profession? After all, age-wise, John Calipari is technically old enough to be a grandfather to any of his current players. I don’t care how much you know about basketball or how physically fit you are at sixty, how in the world can baby boomers as Calipari possibly relate to his current Generation Z all-stars? I’m speaking from experience. It’s literally impossible for an old man like me to be properly dialed into the world of video games, shoe fashion, and hip-hop music. Calipari still loves listening to “Soul Sister” for God’s sake. The guy wears corduroy shorts and watches TV shows about Alaska.
“Cal, he’s a cool guy,” said freshman forward EJ Montgomery when I asked him how he relates to his coach off the court. “He tells jokes and he’s always hip to the new stuff. Just a good guy.” When pressed on how an old guy like Coach Cal could even be hip to the new stuff, EJ gave a very diplomatic answer. “Probably learns from Brad (Calipari),” he said with a chuckle.
Apparently, age in the coaching profession is only a number. And the only number that really matters is your record on the court. Just look at Mike Krzyzewski of Duke—still kicking butt at age 71, believe it or not. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is a year older and currently clocks in as the oldest active coach in Division I at 72 years of age. Roy Williams of North Carolina is 67. Leonard Hamilton of Florida State is 69.
“If they (your players) know you care about them and they know you make it about them, I don’t think age matters,” Calipari told me later. “If you’re into your own numbers, wins and everything is about the program, the program, the program and it isn’t about them and they know it, it doesn’t matter; you’re not going to connect with those kids or their families. Hopefully these kids feel that we’re about them. This is about their success collectively and individually. We try not to leave anybody behind. We’re coaching every kid like they’re a starter.”
Those are poignant words. In addition to being a nice recruiting pitch, I actually think Coach Cal believes what he’s preaching. He relishes his role as teacher, father figure, coach, and mentor to his players. He takes pride in ending generational poverty for their families. He lives for NBA draft night when millionaires are made and lives are changed. I applaud him for that with every fiber of my being.
But that doesn’t mean he’s right. The program does matter. By focusing solely on his “players first” philosophy, he’s delivering a subtle slap in the face to the “average joe” fan who’s ever lived and died with Wildcat fortunes. Kentucky is a poor state. Its residents don’t have a whole lot to be proud of. Having the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball is a source of immense joy and a unifying force throughout all the far reaches of the Commonwealth.
Coach Cal knows that, and yet he still feels the need to constantly prioritize the NBA draft over another national title. He knows the two are not mutually exclusive. Great players make for championships. However, he needs to tone down his NBA rhetoric, at least publicly. Basketball isn’t always about the money—legacy should count for something also. Winning Championship Number Nine will do more for the collective mindset of the citizens of this state than a bevy of first-round picks on draft night. The Program matters! Once Coach Cal acknowledges that, the floodgates of BBN will fully open—releasing a torrent of unity, power, and spirit from the soul of everyone who has ever cheered on the Blue and White.
Happy Birthday, Coach!
Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/