Kentucky coach John Calipari swears he’s never watched the tape from his only appearance in an NCAA championship game, when his Memphis Tigers lost to Kansas in overtime in 2008 in San Antonio.
Nor will he ever.
“That tape was flung out the door of the bus as we were going to the plane,” Calipari said. “The only thing I would learn from that thing is, ‘Oh my gosh, we lost. I’m moving on.’ ”
Calipari indeed moved on. A year later he left Memphis and took over at Kentucky, and tonight he’s back in the NCAA championship game against Kansas, no less.
For Calipari, this can be a defining moment and a referendum on his distinctive and controversial style of assembling basketball teams with a core of one-and-done players who are off to the NBA before they take their second-semester final exams.
Back in 2008, freshman Derrick Rose led Memphis to the championship game against Kansas and two months later was the first overall pick in the NBA draft. Two years ago, freshman John Wall bolted to the NBA after leading Kentucky to the Elite Eight, and last year freshman Brandon Knight led the Wildcats to the Final Four and took off for the NBA.
This year, Calipari hit the mother lode in underclass talent with at least three potential lottery picks — freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and sophomore Terrence Jones — and may never have a better chance to win his first NCAA championship in three trips to the Final Four.
Some coaches don’t agree with Calipari’s philosophy.
“I couldn’t do it,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino after losing to the Wildcats in the semifinals on Saturday. “I can’t say hello and goodbye in seven months. It’s just not me.”
Calipari doesn’t apologize for his system and has even made proposals to the NCAA and NBA to reward college phenoms with stipends, loans and insurance policies that would reward and encourage them to stay in school for at least two years if not all four.
“It’s not my rule,” he said of the NBA’s allowing players to turn pro after one college season. “I don’t like the rules. I want Anthony to come back next year. There are only two solutions to it: Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I’m recruiting or I can try to convince guys that should leave to stay for me.”
Kentucky is not alone in losing underclassmen after a year or two. Three sophomores are leaving North Carolina, freshman Austin Rivers is leaving Duke and Kansas lost Xavier Henry in 2010 and Josh Selby in 2011 after one year each.
“It’s not just my issue now,” Calipari said. “You have a young man who can leave after a year, and he’s going to be drafted in the first five, first 10 picks how do you tell him to stay? I tell (recruits), ‘Do not come with me if you think you’re leaving after a year. Come if you think you’re staying two years minimum, you’re going to class, you’re going to get educated while you’re here.’
“An educated man doesn’t get robbed or fooled. You need to take financial management classes, speech classes, you need to do things that are going to prepare you for the rest of your life, or you’ll get robbed and you’ll get fooled. They also know when the season ends, they’re going to get the information they need to make decisions for themselves personally. They’re not going to be pushed one way or another. It’s about the players first.”
Kansas coach Bill Self understands the tightrope Calipari walks in doing what’s best for Kentucky basketball and what’s best for his precocious players.
“Cal is probably the best salesman that our sport knows,” Self said. “The one thing about Cal that goes unnoticed is that he recruits good players, but he coaches good players. He gets them to buy in and do it his way. They’re unselfish and they guard. That’s a sign of a guy who can coach.
“He’s raised the bar in some ways about how hard you got to get after it because it’s been proven, he’s going to get guys. If you’re going to compete with him, you got to have those same type of guys. Nobody’s recruited like he has. Nobody’s coached his guys better, too, considering how many young kids he has, how he gets them all to play for one purpose.”
With all that talent, Kentucky is a six-point favorite over Kansas tonight, and if the Wildcats fall short, Calipari’s reputation as a great recruiter who can’t win the big one will persist.
He was within seconds of winning the national championship in 2008 when Memphis, unable to knock down free throws down the stretch, frittered away a 9-point lead with 2:12 to play and watched Mario Chalmers hit a memorable three-point shot with 2.1 seconds left in regulation that sent the game into overtime.
Calipari was criticized when Memphis, with a three-point lead, didn’t foul before Chalmers took his three-pointer — as Kansas fouled Ohio State’s Aaron Craft in the final 2 seconds on Saturday night.
“We were trying to foul at halfcourt, but you have to understand, we just missed a ton of free throws,” Calipari recalled without the aid of the videotape, “and if we fouled him too early, they were going to foul us again, we may have missed again (Chalmers) got away from our guy, and when I asked, why didn’t you foul, he said he was afraid it was going to be an intentional foul.
“At the end of the day, we had a nine-point lead, I have to figure something out. Go shoot the free throws myself, do something to get us out of the gym, and I didn’t.”
Another loss to Kansas tonight would be painful, but Calipari, 53, says he’s not worried about what it would do to his legacy.
“Early in my career, yeah,” he said if a championship would be more meaningful to himself than his players and Kentucky fans. “I’m old now. It’s not about me, it’s about everybody else. I’ve been blessed. My grandparents came through Ellis Island did not speak English. My mother passed away last November, my father is here with me, 79 years old high school graduates. Their son, their grandson is coaching at Kentucky. Are you kidding me?
“I’ve been blessed. If it happens, it does. I swear to you, it would be nice. My friends and family are praying. I’m not. If I keep doing right by the kids, good things will happen for all of us.
“Is that fair?”