Cal And the Cats: A Good Fit?

April 1st, 2009
I have been wrong before - believe me. I once remember telling a friend that Rashad Carruth was going to be a fantastic player at Kentucky. I thought it was a good thing the Cats didn't recruit Chris Lofton out of high school. I thought Tayshaun Prince would be, at best, a decent NBA sixth-man. I even bought into the rumors that Patrick Sparks would be the missing piece UK needed to a national title after he transferred from Western Kentucky.

So keep that in mind when I tell you that I don't have the greatest feeling about John Calipari coming to Lexington. When Kentucky gave Billy Gillispie his walking papers last Friday, I wrote that their next hire needed to be a homerun, someone who could quickly resurrect the program, not only on the court but restore their public image as well.

Judging by the reaction of many in the Bluegrass, John Calipari appears to be just that - a homerun. However, I just can't shake the nagging feeling that this may be a Barry Bonds-type home run. It may look good, but it feels a little off, like there's something not quite right about it.

Don't get me wrong, Calipari can coach. His Memphis teams won 137 games in the last four seasons. They visited four Sweet 16s, and were a few missed free throws away from a national title in 2008. He's sent a number of players onto the NBA, including 2008's number one overall pick in Derrick Rose. He brought Memphis onto the national stage, and had top-ranked recruits beating down his door.

But, as everyone has noted, Calipari also comes with a little extra baggage. It has been well-documented that his UMass team in 1996, the one that featured Marcus Camby, has had to "vacate" their Final Four appearance after it came out that Camby was provided with extra benefits. Calipari was never directly implicated in the scandal, but you have to wonder how much he actually knew.

Similarly, there's been a lot of smoke, if not fire, during his rebuilding at Memphis. Numerous top recruits have been lured to the Tigers as part of package deals, where their friends, coaches and family members are given positions on the staff or in the athletic department, coincidentally, right around the same time the heralded recruit signs on the dotted line.

There's also the infamous "World Wide Wes", the moniker given to William Wesley, perhaps the most well-connected non-coach in the basketball world. Wesley has been a fixture in the Memphis program the past few years, and is said to have helped Calipari land top recruits like Dajuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Tyreke Evans. Wesley, who is also well-known by many NBA players and their agents, has never been proven to have done anything illegal with regards to recruiting, but his close ties to so many agents and players gives the appearance of impropriety.

To be fair, Calipari has never been sanctioned by the NCAA for any violations. His Memphis teams have had their share of off-court problems, but have never been proven of any wrong-doing on the recruiting trail. But for a program as image-conscious as Kentucky, you have to wonder if a guy who goes right up to the fence, if not over it, is a great long-term fit.

Calipari is an engaging coach with a sharp wit and a marketable personality...two traits he will need to navigate the Kentucky waters, and two traits his predecessor did not possess. Gillispie turned off many around the Bluegrass with his prickly personality and mood swings (not to mention losses to VMI and Gardner Webb), so Caliapri's enthusiasm will be a welcome arrival in the Bluegrass. He has shown the ability to get talented players, and he has the personality to handle the off-court requirements of the job, which can be more draining than the Xs and Os.

Upon the official announcement, UK fans were celebrating, envisioning more banners being hung in Rupp Arena. With Calipari's energy and UK's resources, the sky seems to be the limit. The possibility even exists that some members of his top-ranked recruiting class at Memphis will follow him to Lexington, which could provide an extremely quick rebuilding job. Adding Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins to a lineup that could return Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson is something that could have the Cats thinking realistically about the Final Four, one year after bowing out in the NIT quarterfinals.

But there's still the nagging feeling that this feels a little rushed. After the Gillispie hire, Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart took a lot of heat for his quick decision to hire the former Texas A&M coach, with many even assuming he made his mind up after Gillispie's Aggies knocked off hated Louisville in the NCAA Tournament in Rupp Arena.

This time around, Barnhart and UK President Lee Todd promised to do their research and extensively investigate the potential candidates, even putting together a search committee that featured some former players. Yet, not even four full days after Gillispie cleaned out his office, there was Calipari on his way to Lexington, pen in hand and wallet ready to be filled.

So, as we said two years ago, we'll just have to wait and see. The Calipari hire has certainly generated national headlines, and has ensured that the Cats will certainly be interesting to watch next year. His personal rivalries with Rick Pitino and Bruce Pearl will add even more excitement to the regular season, and if he's able to bring a few recruits along with him, the Cats could find themselves competing for a title as soon as next year.

But I'm not ready to call this a home run yet, at least not a real home run. There's too much baggage that comes with Calipari to not be at least a little concerning for UK fans. He may bring some more wins to the program, but at what cost? Images and perceptions are very important to Kentucky fans, and Coach Cal doesn't exactly arrive with a clean slate.

But like I said, I've been wrong before. For UK's sake, I hope I am again.