So, it’s April now. The flowers are in bloom and March Madness is over. And, alas, John Calipari finally won a national championship, but at least we probably won’t have to deal with the dominance of this year’s Kentucky basketball team next season. In fact, Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, and Marquis Teague are all potential candidates for the NBA draft, three of whom are projected to be top-10 picks. Without diminishing the skills and hard work of Kentucky’s players, I want to draw attention to Calipari’s career and where he fits into the world of basketball coaching. I believe that Calipari has failed to become a complete coach at either the NCAA or NBA level, and that his coaching style is especially bad for college hoops.
Calipari walks the line between the NBA and NCAA coaching worlds, employing an NBA-style winning-at-all-costs method at the college level. In his words, he has “the best job in basketball” as head coach at Kentucky and wants to stay put. Perhaps it is “the best job” for him because he is not held accountable for failing to fulfill the complete role of a college coach.
Let’s start off by taking a look at Calipari’s NBA career. Despite doing fairly well in his first two seasons, the Nets were 3-17 to start the 1998-99 season and management fired Calipari. Of course, one can never just blame the coach for a team’s failures, but Calipari coached for just one more season (in Philadelphia as an assistant) before exiting the NBA and has not looked back, suggesting that he’s ill-suited for the league.
Success in the NBA is measured in wins, and coaches perform well by managing egos, making good personnel decisions, and implementing sound game plans. NBA coaches show their strengths when they continue to succeed despite injury setbacks, aging rosters, or less-talented squads. Take Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau as examples of good NBA coaches who have undergone these situations this season. When Sam Cassell suffered an injury at the beginning of the 1998-99 season, Calipari’s Nets team tanked, and he skulked away.
Those traits that make a strong NBA coach are certainly important in Division I college hoops as well. However, the role of college coaches is a bit more complex, since their players are students as well and are limited to college careers of only four years. Coaches should be judged not just on their win percentage, but also by their mentorship.
When it comes to winning, John Calipari has been wildly successful, winning well over half of his games. However, it’s hard to see him ever producing a dynasty like John Wooden’s at UCLA or even Mike Krzyzewski’s at Duke, since he has not had much continuity at any one school and also has a penchant for recruiting “one-and-done” players (see Derrick Rose, John Wall, and this year’s bunch) who don’t see their college careers come to fruition. We respect college coaches like Wooden and Krzyzewski who create a tradition of winning, not a few seasons.
The key to this consistent success is a college coach’s effective mentoring of young athletes during their formative college years, during which they face academic challenges and media attention alongside adversity on the court. Seeing them do amazing things on the court, we forget that freshman basketball players are only 18 or 19 years old and need a lot of guidance (more than a year’s worth) as they enter adulthood, just like the rest of us. Of course, college students are still adults and can make decisions about their futures, but coaches should try to shelter their players from outside pressures—agents, the media, etc. Calipari failed to do this on more than one occasion, and he left both UMass and Memphis in the wake of NCAA rules violation scandals.
Here at Columbia, we don’t get one-and-done players, and, from what I’ve gathered, our coaching staff and athletic department do a pretty good job of making sure that players are engaged not only in sports and academics, but also in the community. However, our league isn’t free of scandal. The Ivy League is not immune to the problems that coaches like Calipari bring to the table, especially as Ivy teams are attempting to make ripples in the national college hoops scene. For athletes at Columbia, the takeaway from their time in college should be a holistic maturity acquired through discipline in sports and in everything they do off the court. They carry this forward into their careers, which for the most part don’t include donning a Knicks jersey. For better or worse, sports coaches often become life coaches, and Calipari-style coaching does not suit the kind of development athletes deserve to get out of college.
Benjamin Spener is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in economics-mathematics and Latin American and Iberian cultures.
If you are interested in submitting a guest column, please email email@example.com