He’s a pariah to some, successful only because of his ability to attract one-and-done stars destined for the NBA. They point to him as a scourge of college basketball, arguing that he’s complicit — responsible, even — in stripping “student” from student-athletes.
Then there are those who see him as an elite coach, the architect of successful programs at UMass, Memphis and now Kentucky.
He’s churned out players who are making millions in the pros, and it is hard to argue that he’s let any of them down.
“He does get the best guys, but he challenges them and pushes them to be who they are,” said New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans, who played one season for Calipari at Memphis.
Those who accept the challenge are usually rewarded.
His group at Memphis headlined by Derrick Rose reached the national title game in 2008, though the trip was later vacated. Another troupe of young stars led by Anthony Davis beat Kansas to win Kentucky’s eighth national championship in 2012.
And the latest group of fabulous freshmen has the Wildcats back in the Final Four, knocking off three of the top four seeds in the Midwest Region along the way. They’ll start five first-year players Saturday against Wisconsin, headlined by twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and power forward Julius Randle, a potential lottery pick in the June draft.
“He’s tough on us,” said Randle, when asked to describe what it’s like to play for Calipari. “You may not like it some days, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s best for us.”
Since 2006, Calipari’s sent 13 one-and-done players to the NBA. They’ve combined to make more than $181 million in salary alone.
And if all of them play through their current contracts, that total would surpass $460 million — nearly equaling the gross domestic product of the island nation of Tonga — even with several of them playing out relatively paltry rookie contracts.
That figure doesn’t include endorsement deals, either. Throw in the millions they’re paid for hawking sneakers, apparel and everything else, and the total closes in on a billion.
“He put a lot of responsibility on us at a young age,” said Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, who played for Calipari at Kentucky. “That basically prepared us for the next level.”
It’s important to note that Calipari doesn’t agree with the current NBA rules, which require that players be a year removed from high school before entering the draft. If it were up to him, he said last week, it would be a two-year waiting period.
“But it’s between the NBA and the players’ association. Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA,” Calipari said. “So I just think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt. Kids are going on to the league from us and performing. And I’m proud of that. Would I like to have had them for four years? Yes. But I also like what’s happened for them and their families.”
Many rival coaches have a similar viewpoint.
“I think when student-athletes pick a school and go to college, they go to have the best chance to have the best life,” offered Kansas coach Bill Self, who had Andrew Wiggins become his third one-and-done player when the freshman declared for the draft this week.
Of course, there are still plenty of detractors. Final Four counterpart Bo Ryan appeared to take a veiled jab at Calipari this week when he said: “What I like about the Wisconsin fans is they understand these are student-athletes who actually are here for the purpose of an education first and playing ball second. That’s what I believe makes them really endearing.”
It’s not the first time that Calipari has heard that argument. “We’ve had a 3.0 grade-point average for the last four seasons,” he said, “and they go to class. It’s not Internet, correspondence. They go to class, for four seasons. Brandon Knight was a straight-A student. Alex Poythress is a straight-A student. They all go to school.”
Besides, if college is truly about preparing kids for a career, what happens on the hardwood at Kentucky amounts to graduate-level work in basketball. Calipari is simply the professor.
“There were guys who went there before me who thought they were going to be ready for the NBA,” Evans explained, “but he’d tell them, ‘You’re not ready.’”
And if they are ready? Well, the NBA’s former rookie of the year remembers his conversation with Calipari after the final game of his freshman season.
“He said, ‘Hey, you’re a good player. I enjoyed having you. Good luck on the next level,’” Evans said. “That was pretty much it.”