One of the more recognizable faces and names to any college basketball fan in the 1990s was Jeff Sheppard. (Go ahead and click this video; cursive signature introductions!) The guy was an important player for Kentucky in its three straight runs to the national championship game, helping the Wildcats win national titles in 1996 and 1998. Sheppard won the 1998 NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player award, too.
He's beloved in Kentucky circles, naturally.
Today, maybe just slightly a little less so? I'll explain.
Sheppard did the one thing Kentucky fans are guaranteed to blench at: he criticized John Calipari. Well ... sort of. Speaking recently at convention for Kentucky -- in the state of Ohio, nonetheless -- Sheppard lamented how players in Calipari's tenure have been so fleeting, coming and going and making millions in the NBA, using Kentucky as the steppingstone.
I know, I know. Someone find the man a violin. The complaint is beyond boilerplate at this point, but it's news because it's one of Kentucky's own going after the system and the man who uses it -- and uses it quite well. After all, Kentucky won the national title in 2012, and Calipari has produced double-digit first-round draft picks in less than five years at the school.
Via Sporting News:
“Those players, you want to follow them. You want to see them develop. You want to see them get stronger and work on their jumpshot,” Sheppard said during his address. “All those things that traditionally you have been able to follow, you've been able to talk about, you've been able to get excited—has now changed. And I don't like it. I don't think the Kentucky fan, overall, likes it. We've had to accept it, and its working because we're winning, and we're winning national championships. Or at least one. And so it's the way that it is.”...
“The last thing I want to do is take away from the run that coach Calipari has put together over the last several years,” Sheppard said. “It's been phenomenal. I personally think there's maybe a little too much emphasis on first-round draft picks. I'd rather be celebrating national championships.”
That second graf of a quote is a direct callback to the time Calipari proclaimed getting five first-round draft picks in 2010 was the most significant day in Kentucky's history. (He's defended this statement in recent years, too.)
Thing is, you can have it both ways if you're a Kentucky fan. The case can be made this is the golden era. Kentucky's had many similar epochs, but has it ever been as big as it is now? No, at least not nationally in its perception and power on the recruiting trail. Or as a driver of TV viewership. I've argued before how Calipari is the perfect coach for the perfect school at the perfect time. He can win national titles and still create an environment that feels like its establishing distinct, memorable classes of kids.
Those classes can be short, though. Like, one year. But 10 years down the road, we'll remember the John Wall team of 2010 like we will the Anthony Davis team of 2012. And the NIT-bound, letdown of a team in 2013 that was due in part to Nerlens Noel's big injury. Good or bad, Kentucky is managing to make memorable campaigns just about every season under Calipari.
When the preseason polls are released in October, expect the Wildcats to be No. 1. I know that's where they'll sit on CBSSports.com's Top 25 (and one).
All of this, by the way, while Calipari merely uses the system as he sees fit. He goes on record about every other month, shouting his disapproval of the age-restriction rule put in place by the NBA, the one that's led college basketball to have a culture where many players are in one year and then out the next.
College sports are not what they were 15 years ago, and in a lot of ways that's a good thing. And if some lamenting over infrastructure is what Kentucky fans and/or alums are up in arms about, that's a sign of pretty good times.