Compassionate Cal

Compassionate Cal

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.

Fair Pay To Play Is Foul Play

Fair Pay To Play Is Foul Play

Coach John Calipari loves to talk. During his press conferences, he’s likely to babble on endlessly about who knows what. Most of the time, if you ask him a specific question, his answer will have nothing to do with what you originally asked. When Cal gets on one of his infamous rants—whether it’s about his former players in the NBA, or his quest to end generational poverty, or his current players pooping ice cream—I usually end up tuning him out.

However, Coach Cal said something the other day that may have slipped under the radar. Ironically, it had to do with the hot topic of the day—that dad gum California Fair Pay to Play law that will allow student-athletes to profit from their own likeness while still enrolled in school. Although he said he hadn’t had a chance to digest the specifics, it sounded like our hall of fame coach was speaking out against the new California Senate Bill 206.

“My biggest concern is that we minimize and diminish education,” Calipari conceded when pressed on his opinion of the new law. “The reality of it is, the players that have that opportunity to go (to the NBA straight from high school), it’s one percent. So we’re going to do everything to make this about all the other stuff and diminish education.”

I couldn’t agree more. Since when has the value of an athletic scholarship been so trivialized?

Growing up as a child of immigrants pursuing the American dream, I was told often by my parents that a good education was the key to future opportunity. I heeded their sage advice, studied hard, and pursued as many degrees as I possibly could. I ended up doing pretty well for myself—but it was my parents who paid the price of my in-state tuition with their hard-earned dollars.

If you would have told my mom and dad that I could have had a top-notch college education, complete with, room, board, books, a stipend, 24-hour food service, free shoes, nutritional counseling, fitness training, academic tutoring, state-of-the-art health care, and high-level coaching—all while traveling around the country on charter flights and plush hotels to play ball—they would have thought they’d hit the lottery. In a way they would have, as a four-year scholarship and all the associated amenities nowadays can escalate well over a quarter of a million dollars.

Since when is that not enough? Why do we feel the need to constantly stoke the fires of free enterprise, capitalism, and greed—at the expense of a bona fide college education?

Not only is the suggestion of allowing student-athletes on scholarship to start monetizing their name, image and likeness (NIL) an insult to the value of an educational scholarship, it also opens up a Pandora’s Box that I don’t want to deal with as an alumni and fan.

I’ll go on and say it—I don’t want anyone on a full athletic scholarship being distracted by the lure of earning a wheelbarrow full of cash on the side. I don’t want that used car dealer on Richmond Road funneling $50K a year into Khalil Whitney’s pockets, when that money could have been used to provide air conditioning for Memorial Coliseum. I don’t want that snarky orthodontist down the street capitalizing on Tyrese Maxey’s infectious smile at the expense of a facelift for the Hillary Boone Tennis Complex. I don’t want Lynn Bowden signing autographs at the local sports bar during bye week when he should be preparing to take snaps at quarterback.

Numbers don’t lie. Anything going into the players’ pockets will ultimately come out of the university’s coffers. If you’re a high-end donor, why contribute to the university when you can pay the player directly? Less money for the university means less funding for facilities upgrades and lower budgets for the lesser sports programs.

If that’s not detrimental enough, think about the potential internal strife within a program itself. What would happen if the shady orthodontist referenced above wanted to pay freshman Tyrese Maxey $100K for his intoxicating smile while allocating a measly $10K for Nick Richards’ gap-toothed grin. Might have a bit of an effect on team chemistry—wouldn’t you say?

These student-athletes are busy enough hitting the books and the practice courts. They don’t need to be out there in the wild west filming commercials or posing for billboards at the mercy of unscrupulous boosters. What would happen, God forbid, if they ended up being a bust and having to transfer out? My point is this—if these student-athletes are already riding comfortably on their university’s scholarship gravy train, then let them wait until they graduate before selling off their body parts.

I agree with Coach Cal. Let the five or six players who are good enough each year go directly to the NBA. For the other 99% graciously benefitting from their scholarships—let’s not let ignorant self-serving politicians throw the baby out with the bath water.

Or better yet—let’s just take Coach Cal’s car dealership endorsements and split them evenly within the team. That way, everybody wins!

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my musings on University of Kentucky sports on my new website at www.justthecats.com, or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.