Calipari sparks minor backlash

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
9:22
AM ET
Make no mistake. John Calipari's been so successful at Kentucky in 400-plus days since he took the job -- and Billy Gillispie, the man Calipari replaced, was so mediocre -- that it would take a lot more than an overheated comment on draft night to really spark an anti-coach backlash. But Calipari did manage to tweak some of Kentucky's old guard last Thursday, even as Kentucky was celebrating a wildly successful end to the draft process.

That comment, as you might remember, came when Calipari told ESPN's Heather Cox that Thursday night's draft success was "the biggest day in the history of Kentucky's program." It was a pretty big day: Five Wildcats were drafted in the first round of the draft, including John Wall, who went No. 1 overall to the Washington Wizards. But Calipari immediately drew scoffs, and for good reason. There's no way a draft, no matter how successful, trumps any of Kentucky's seven NCAA championships on the college hoops "big day" spectrum. It just doesn't.

As you might expect, Kentucky's old-school types agree. From the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton:
"The dumbest thing I've ever heard," said Dan Issel, UK basketball's career scoring leader. [...] Issel did not sound upset. He sounded amused. "If the goal is to be a feeder team for the NBA, maybe that was the greatest day," Issel said. "I thought the goal was to win a national championship."

"I'm not saying it's not great," Issel said. "It's terrific. If these prospective players see coming to Kentucky as a step to the NBA, then that's great. But the goal is to win a national championship, and the Kentucky program is such that that should be the goal every year."

All of the other former players Tipton contacted agree. Who wouldn't? Kentucky is what it is -- the fan base is as rabid as it is, and the facilities are as nice as they are -- because former coaches and players established a winning tradition that breeds opportunities for present-day success. The coach may recruit the new blood, and that new blood may be insanely talented, but at least some part of the reason Calipari can recruit so well to the school is its national profile and the exposure it provides. It's all part of the pitch.

Then again, if you're Calipari, Thursday night might have been the most promising night of your career. The man got Daniel Orton, a 13-minutes-per-game reserve, drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. Calipari proved again, beyond all doubt, that there is no one in college basketball quite so good at managing elite talent in the one-and-done stopover and making sure that talent is ready to succeed on the next level. If you're a recruit, you were watching. You were listening. You got the message. Which is, minor backlash aside, exactly what Calipari wanted.

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