Participating in his fourth Final Four and second NCAA Championship game, Calipari had the credentials to back up what appears to be a sterling resume. The only accomplishment still eluding Coach Cal, as he is affectionately referred by many of his players both past and present, was the ultimate affirmation for any college basketball coach — a national title.
Prior to guiding Kentucky to a 67-59 win over Kansas on Monday, capturing the school's record eighth national title, Calipari had already steered three programs — including Kentucky in 2011 — through the murky waters of the NCAA tournament and into a Final Four.
On paper, Calipari looked like the perfect coach — a successful game manager and superior recruiter simply seeking to achieve the ultimate prize after three unsuccessful ventures. The only hitch in his story: Two of those appearances no longer exist in the NCAA record books.
No, Calipari was never found culpable in either of the violations charged to UMass' 1996 team nor the 2008 Memphis team, which was just a few missed foul shots from winning the national championship. But, while Calipari may not be convicted in the NCAA's court, the court of public opinion certainly judges otherwise.
The proof resonates clearly in the tweets that immediately followed Kentucky's victory on Monday.
Sure, there appears to be some dirt on Cal's record, whether it is ever confirmed or not. But to put in perspective, Calipari's guilt is the same as that of any baseball player active during the steroid era. Yes, the sanctions put forth on his former programs show a level of liability never truly enforced on Calipari, but that doesn't prove guilt. Just because Ken Griffey Jr. has hit more home runs than the likes of Jose Canseco and Manny Ramirez doesn't mean his homers have any less significance. Does it?
No, Griffey may have played in an era plagued by PED use, but The Kid's accomplishments shouldn't suffer due to speculation — whether existent or not. He's still widely considered one of the greatest players ever to touch a baseball diamond. And if that is the case, then why should fans discredit Calipari's championship?
Corruption and extortion has run rampant throughout the NCAA over the years, to the point that no one is truly considered "clean" but rather "less dirty." Mike Krzyzewski, very much viewed as the pristine figure within college basketball, has been investigated for secondary violations and was widely rumored to have paid Elton Brand for his commitment to Duke.
Coach K isn't looked down upon for his accomplishments. There are no asterisks — real or figurative — next to his championship banners. Calipari may not have quite the same luxury, as his teams have not just been rumored but have been found guilty of excessive violations. But that doesn't make his exceptional coaching ability any less distinguished or impressive.
While at UMass, Calipari wasn't the devious and corrupt individual many make him out to be today. He was simply a young, excitable coach with an impressive ability to motivate players and cultivate talent. Marcus Camby may have been the National Player of the Year in 1996, but none of his teammates were even considered for the All-America team. Cal still managed to take that squad to the brink of immortality.
In 2008, Calipari did similar, taking an extremely talented — Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, etc. — but misguided group in Memphis to within a split second of a national title.
Neither time was Calipari able to capture the elusive feat, nor did he find success in his venture to the NBA. But Calipari has found success as a galvanizing presence with young men, like the ones who captured the national title on Monday.
Just think about the talent that exists on that Kentucky team. There were potentially five lottery picks in this year's draft playing for the Wildcats in that game. The egos that must exist within each of them is a task to contain on its own. Yet the team that cut down the nets Monday was a cohesive bunch, a group of players that pushed and relied on one another to reach their goal.
Many coaches have failed miserably with exceptional talent at their disposal. Former Illinois and newly hired Kansas State coach Bruce Weber is a prime example — a coach who consistently recruits top-tier talent but can't seem to turn his annual high expectations into anything more than middling success. That's where Calipari excels.
Nothing shows more than the Wildcats' performance on Monday. National Player of the Year Anthony Davis continued his blistering pace on defense, but needless to say he struggled mightily with his offensive game. Davis pulled down 16 rebounds to go along with six blocks, but the tournament's Most Outstanding Player scored just six points on 1-of-10 shooting from the floor. That's where Calipari's outstanding game-management skills were suddenly put on display.
While most teams would suffer gravely as their best player remain quiet against a worthy opponent, Kentucky excelled. Sophomore Doron Lamb netted a game-high 22 points on an efficient 7-of-12 shooting and 3-of-6 on 3-pointers. Freshman Marquis Teague, underwhelming for much of the season, also stepped up in a big way with 14 points and a pair of piercing 3-pointers that helped the Cats stave off the Jayhawks.
It was Calipari, this time, who ultimately won the war between two supreme coaches, avenging his 2008 title game defeat at the hands of Bill Self's Jayhawks. Calipari didn't just win a national title Monday. He outcoached — for the majority of the game, at least — the National Coach of the Year and one of the premier managers in the sport.
While many will continue to despise Calipari's slicked-back appearance and his constant impression of deception, Monday's championship victory should cement his place in college basketball lore.
Although the achievement will only bring even more hate upon the talented champion, the banner should bring greater appreciation for Calipari's talents on the bench rather than a growing disdain for what are still unconfirmed misgivings.
Calipari may be the most hated man in college basketball, but he is a deserving champion.
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