Is Kentucky’s head basketball coach really going soft?

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – When God was dishing out compassion, it seemed like he skipped over college basketball coaches. Just tune in nowadays to any game broadcast, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. You’ll be treated to the spectacle of grown men—who otherwise are highly respected pillars in their communities—ranting and raving at young men less than half their age, as if somehow demon possessed. Nowhere else in society, except in athletic competition, can you experience such unmitigated lunacy.

That’s not exactly the case with Fairleigh Dickinson’s head basketball coach Greg Herenda. His team was thrashed by Kentucky 83-52 Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena, but you didn’t see Herenda spewing expletives at the refs or throwing tantrums on the sidelines. You didn’t see him endlessly yelling at his assistants or berating his players during timeouts. You most likely saw him inspiring his players with verbal encouragement and supporting them with compassionate hugs.

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In a telephone conversation with Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the 58-year-old Herenda explained how a life-threatening illness less than two years earlier changed his entire coaching perspective and demeanor.

Herenda was attending the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio when he was rushed to the hospital after he collapsed while walking on the River Walk. The doctors discovered two blood clots in his leg. Afterwards, he remembers having a 104.5-degree fever and his leg being swollen to three times its normal size. He was diagnosed with May-Thurner syndrome—a blood vessel disorder—and was hospitalized for a week in intensive care. During his recovery, Herenda was initially confined to a wheelchair before eventually graduating to a walker, and then a cane.

Herenda told Tipton that this experience made him rethink how coaches usually deal with players—and that a typical coaching personality is likened to a drill sergeant with bunions.

“I think it makes you stop and think,” Herenda said. “I’ve kind of slowed down a little bit…I think ‘perspective’ is the word. I think I have things in better perspective. When I was a young coach, it was non-stop. And it was every play and coaching every play and refereeing every call.”

Hmm, that ‘coaching every play’ mentality seems very familiar to many of us. Kentucky fans see it all the time with John Calipari’s demonstrative behavior on the sidelines. Herenda and Calipari go back a ways—in fact, all the way back to their coaching days three decades earlier at the famed Five-Star basketball camps.

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“It’s funny, it hasn’t changed that much,” Herenda answered pensively, when I asked him how Calipari’s coaching style had morphed over the years. “John Calipari was born to coach…I can’t believe he’s 60. He’s got energy, and he flies all over the world, and he does so many good things for people.”

Not one to leave any stone unturned, I asked Coach Cal directly about how he thinks his compassion toward his players has evolved over the past few decades.

“So, early in your career, you’re in a dogfight,” said BBN’s beloved hall of fame coach. “Everything is a struggle. Everything is a fight to survive…When I get together with the UMASS guys, like, I apologize. I know what I was like…So when they see me coach in practice now, they say, ‘You got soft.’”

Here’s what it comes down to. Behaving like a lunatic is readily accepted in today’s sports culture. Those John Wooden days of watching passively from your bench are long gone. Any coach worth his contract has to show the world he’s passionately into the game. The crazier the histrionics, the better your chances of getting noticed on SportsCenter.

But here’s the rub. Despite the bulging eyes and flying spittle, the players you’re coaching have to know that you truly care about them as people. If that’s the case, you can flail your arms, scream, and make a complete idiot of yourself…and they’ll still be willing to run through a brick wall for you. The minute that compassion ends, however, you’re dead to them and the rest of the world as well.

“These kids need me in a different way than kids in the past,” Calipari continued. “They need more individual meetings. They need to know, yes, I do love you, even though I’m hard on you.”

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With John Calipari, his ‘players first’ slogan isn’t necessarily his mantra for getting superstars into the NBA (although it is a pretty effective recruiting pitch). It’s really his philosophy on treating his players right. Personally, I’d prefer not to hear him use such salty language on the court, but if that’s what it takes to get these 18-year-old basketball prodigies to respond positively, then who am I to judge?

In the dental profession, we had a saying that was fairly universal. “Patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That pearl of wisdom can easily be transferred to basketball coaches and their players. Evidently, both Greg Herenda and John Calipari have—in their own different ways—taken it directly to heart.

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This column appeared in the December 11, 2019 print editions of Nolan Group Media Publications.

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