- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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To correspond with Jason King's feature on how tough it is to replace a legend, three of our writers gave their take on who will be the toughest icon to replace. Also see Myron Medcalf's take on Mike Krzyzewski and Andy Katz's take on Jim Calhoun.
Perhaps he is not quite a legend in his sport yet, but he is a deity in the state he currently calls home. If John Calipari asked for a flash mob to assemble at Rupp Arena at noon on Friday, businesses and schools would have to shut down. If he said he liked purple tulips, they’d arrive at his doorstep by the truckload.
That’s why Mitch Barnhart -- or whoever is the Kentucky athletic director when Calipari calls it quits -- has the toughest job in college basketball.
As his short-lived predecessor proved, being a successful UK coach takes more than just the ability to run a good offense. It’s about salesmanship and glad-handing, about showmanship and arrogance, about schmoozing the 90-year-old in rural Paris with the same fervor you’d use for the big donor in Lexington.
To be successful there, you must embrace the insanity of it all -- and Calipari has bear-hugged the craziness, the perfect Barnum to this basketball-mad circus.
To him and his legion of followers, Kentucky is not merely a basketball program; it is the basketball program, one in which the country’s best recruits head for a destination vacation. Where schedules are not, as Calipari said recently, made to benefit the rest of America, but to benefit the Wildcats. And where, when the coach conjures up a tripleheader featuring men’s and women’s basketball and football at one site, no one dares laugh because they know he could pull it off.
If he were all puff and blather, this wouldn’t be difficult. Instead, in Calipari’s tenure, the Wildcats have gone from the Elite Eight to the Final Four to a national championship.
Who in his right mind wants to follow that?
And more, who could? It is not like there is an obvious heir apparent here, a former player or appropriately groomed assistant who could easily slide into Calipari’s vacated seat. A well-established head coach would have a hard time walking into that shadow, and of those on the up-and-coming list, none has the personality or the presence to match Coach Cal’s.
Calipari has vowed he will not overstay his welcome in Kentucky, that the job is too all-consuming to last for too long. If that’s true, Barnhart ought to start funding cloning research right now.
Legends are easier to replace than deities.