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John Calipari is John Wooden

I have been thinking about this blog post since the end of March, but life has gotten in the way a bit (more on that a little later). Watching John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats dismantle the rest of the field in the NCAA basketball tournament, en-route to his first national championship, I kept listening to all the commentators and analysts pick apart the coaching job he has done since arriving in Lexington, saying things like all he can do is recruit, recruit “one and done’s,” or “he only wins because he has super talent.” Crazy. Stupid. Ill-informed. I think because I’m a coach and a coach at the college level I am more sensitive to these types of criticisms, but what an asinine criticism these people have of Calipari. If you want to pick apart his history with rules violations fine, I understand that. I don’t know enough details to make an informed judgment on that end, but to downgrade his coaching abilities just because he has the best players is ridiculous. Calling him a “collector of talent” is absurd. Somehow getting the best players to come to your program is suddenly a bad thing? Recruiting is the life blood of college athletics, as every university message board and blog detailing all the recruiting battles across the country attests to. What Calipari does is incredibly impressive, selling the advantages of playing in hoops-crazed Kentucky and getting an opportunity to prepare yourself to pursue a professional career. Doesn’t that deserve the praise normally reserved for the likes of Izzo, Williams, Boeheim, and the rest of the college basketball elite? As a college baseball coach, I know the first thing I have to do to get my program on the map is to recruit great players. Calipari does this in impressive fashion.

What I think is even more impressive is what Cal has done with all these 5-star recruits once he has them on campus. Getting elite players to buy in to a team philosophy and play together unselfishly is an incredibly difficult task, as any college coach will tell you. That’s to me where my comparison to John Wooden comes in. Everyone gives John Wooden all the credit in the world for winning consistently and in dominant fashion, but all of it is directed at his practice and game coaching, never for his recruiting. He got the best players every year as well, and once on campus, got them to put aside their egos and play for the name on the front of the jersey. This is exactly what Calipari is doing, and I would argue that he is doing it in an era where this task is infinitely more difficult, given the nature of the fame and acclaim these young men receive for years before ever setting foot on a college campus. Now, before everyone freaks out that I am saying Calipari is as good a coach as Wooden, I’m not. Wooden’s principles and achievements are without equal, but what Calipari is doing is in the same vein. He is convincing the best players in the country to come and play for him, then getting them to play for each other, all the while preparing them for a professional career, exactly what John Wooden did without peer for so many years. Think about it.

All of this recruiting talk has been on the forefront of my mind these past few weeks (again, much of the reason for my blog posting delay) as I have been at a crossroad of sorts in my career. I have enjoyed immensely my time here at SeattleU these past two years, but I have been offered, and have accepted the head coaching job at Lower Columbia College. LCC is the premier junior college program in the Pacific Northwest, and one with unbelievable tradition. It is also where I began my coaching career as an assistant almost fifteen years ago. It also happens to be my wife’s hometown. All of those are great reasons to take the job (along with a VERY family-friendly pay raise) but nevertheless it was an incredibly difficult decision. The staff here at SU is simply THE best to work with in the country, period. Great coaches and great men. I will miss them dearly. I will also of course miss my players, though they may not miss me as much :-). Ultimately, the opportunity was the right one for me and my family at this point in our lives, though and we are excited to embark on it together. SeattleU will be fine, well probably better actually, with whomever they replace me with, and I will be their biggest fan. Thanks for the time.