In news I’m sure all of you are aware of now, John Calipari, formerly coach of the Memphis Tigers, has left to take an 8-year, $35 million coaching gig at the University of Kentucky. Kentucky is among the premier programs in college basketball historically, up there with Duke, Kansas, UCLA, and North Carolina.
The decision he made — leaving Memphis — could not have been more wrong.
Coaches get famous not for moving between programs, but making programs. Wooden made UCLA, Dean Smith made UNC, Bob Knight made Indiana, and Krzyzewski made Duke. In the Big East, Calhoun made UConn, Boeheim made Syracuse, and Thompson made Georgetown. Those names are synonymous with their programs, and furthermore, their universities will continue to be powerhouses in college basketball even after they’ve left. Coaches establish these programs as a brand and ensure control of the program stays “within the family” by passing the throne to some longtime assistant.
Calipari had the shot at making a program twice in his lifetime and gave up both. He first left UMass, having brought that program from insignificance to national prominence under stars like Lou Roe and Marcus Camby. UMass was a perfect place to make a program — a large state school in a wealthy, recognizable state with history (Dr. J played there), and with a natural rival — UConn. Yet he left for the NBA and the New Jersey Nets at the peak of the program –having just reached a Final Four. Fast forward a dozen years or so and Calipari has done the same thing — left a program he could have left his mark on. Memphis is already a brand — it stands for amazing athletes, great recruiting, and a coach/program that doesn’t at all mind players coming in a year and leaving for the NBA. Memphis stood for demolishing the competition yet always being able to play the “respect card” because of Conference USA. Personally, I was excited to see him take Memphis further along — perhaps do such crazy things as recruit five stellar freshman every year to try to win a national championship each year and then happily move them along to the NBA, and essentially make Memphis a program designed for the one-and-done NCAA/NBA rule.
And yet now he’s moving to “greener pastures”. Truth is, the grass was already perfect in Memphis.