LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Only a national championship can save him. That's the story for John Calipari, a bold and nuanced narrative that ranks right up there with such classics as Great Expectations and Moby Dick.
Because it's fiction.
It's not true.
John Calipari doesn't need a national championship to give his career the imprimatur of greatness, not any more than Syracuse' Jim Boeheim needed his title in 2003, or North Carolina's Roy Williams needed his in '05, or Kansas' Bill Self needed his in '08. There's nothing official about greatness, no box you check to complete the deal. Greatness isn't a parking garage, with a ticket that can be validated only by cutting down the net on the season's final Monday.
Greatness is greatness, and there are many ways to achieve it. Boeheim achieved it long before 2003, by leading Syracuse to 21 NCAA Tournament appearances in the 25 years leading up to that title game. Even if Syracuse hadn't won -- what if elastic Hakim Warrick doesn't hop off that trampoline to block Michael Lee's tying shot in the final seconds, and Kansas goes on to win? -- Jim Boeheim today would have 884 career victories, third all time, and three appearances in the national championship game. Greatness doesn't come much greater.
Roy Williams achieved greatness by rebuilding Kansas immediately after Larry Brown left behind an NCAA-sanctioned mess. The Jayhawks made four Final Four appearances in 13 years before Williams went to North Carolina, and even if the Tar Heels had fallen to that magical Illinois team in the 2005 title game and Williams had retired that night, his career winning percentage was .809 percent, third all-time. Greatness.
Bill Self achieved greatness by winning big at Oral Roberts, bigger at Tulsa, bigger still at Illinois -- where he left behind the pieces for that magical 2005 season -- and then huge at Kansas. What if Mario Chalmers doesn't hit that 3-pointer to force overtime in the 2008 title game? Kansas loses, that's what. And if Mario Chalmers doesn't hit that shot, would Bill Self not have earned his right to greatness?
And would John Calipari not still be searching for his?
You remember the team Kansas beat to win that 2008 title: Memphis. Coached by John Calipari. So because one guy hit one shot, in a season of thousands of shots attempted and defended by both teams, one coach is forever afforded greatness -- and one is still searching.
Does that make sense?
Of course not. What it does, though, is allow people to indulge their laziest fantasies. And in some minds -- OK, lots of minds -- John Calipari doesn't deserve to be considered a great coach. That's a special place, hallowed ground reserved for names like Wooden and Krzyzewski, Knight and Dean Smith, and Calipari doesn't belong there. Not after what happened at UMass, where his 1996 Final Four was vacated because Marcus Camby took benefits from an agent, and what happened at Memphis, where his 2008 Final Four was vacated because Derrick Rose obtained a fraudulent SAT score a year earlier, and a thousand miles away, while in high school.
|More Kentucky basketball|
And if you want to hold those two lost seasons against Calipari, do it. I'm not here to argue that opinion. A reasonable person could look at the forest and see two Final Fours vacated by the same coach and deduce that, well, the coach is at fault. Another reasonable person could look at the individual trees there and deduce that, just because someone off-campus got to Camby and Rose, it shouldn't reflect on Calipari. I know where lots of you stand. And lots of you can probably figure out where I stand. But again, that's not the issue here.
The issue is Calipari's coaching acumen, and whether he needs a national title to get everyone off his back, and it's another forest-or-trees argument. The forest shows one great player at UMass in 1996, several at Memphis in 2008, several more at Kentucky since '09 -- and no national title for the coach who had them. The forest says Calipari is a great recruiter, isn't a great coach. That's one way to see it.
Another way is to consider Calipari in comparison to Boeheim, Self and Roy Williams, great coaches whether they won titles or not. And there are numbers that say Calipari ranks right with them. Only Williams has won games at a faster clip, but he has spent all of his 24 years at royalty -- Kansas and UNC -- while Calipari (77.9 percent) has spent 17 of his 20 years at UMass and Memphis. Big difference.
Calipari has 510 victories, and he's only 53 years old. If he coaches to 65, wins at his career rate, he'd soar past 800. With or without a title, would anyone deny his greatness then?
Surely not. So why deny it now?
Anyway, I spent the weekend inside the forest, looking at some trees, and here's what I'll remember from Friday: Calipari putting his team through a high-energy, no-frills practice devoted to Vanderbilt's complicated offense, as demonstrated by Kentucky's assistant coaches. Calipari's attention to detail was telling, his whistle blowing every few seconds when Darius Miller or Marquis Teague didn't react with the precision Calipari knew would be required. By the time practice was over, even I knew what Vanderbilt would do Saturday -- and sure enough, Vanderbilt did it. Running guards off high screens, breaking at unusual angles to the low post. Kentucky was ready, holding Vandy to 41.3 percent shooting in an 83-74 victory.
That was defense. On offense, here's what I'll remember from Saturday: After trailing most of the first half, Kentucky was clinging to a 45-42 lead when it faced an inbounds play with two seconds on the shot clock -- 40 feet from the basket. Calipari didn't call timeout, just called a play. It unfolded with a series of screens 40 feet out, resulting in Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis sneaking unseen to the basket, where he caught the inbounds pass and laid it in before the buzzer.
A few hours later Calipari was giddy about that one, clapping his hands and saying, "Oh, you saw that?"
It was a play only a great coach would've had in his team's arsenal, ready for the right time. It was a play you'd expect from one of only two coaches in history to lead three different schools to the Final Four, and one of only two coaches to lead three different schools to the No. 1 ranking -- and the only coach to be on both lists.
It was the kind of play that would suggest his victory total and winning percentage aren't the results of only great recruiting, but great coaching as well.
The man's a great coach. Cling to the notion that he's not, but understand something: The book on Calipari, just like the book on that white whale, isn't true.