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Great expectations make UK a stepping stone instead of a destination

by Mark Coomes

UK Coach Calipari

UK Coach Calipari

The strangest thing about Rex Chapman’s infamous tweet on Monday night, the one that claimed John Calipari’s move to the Los Angeles Lakers was a “done deal,” wasn’t the awful timing or the basic implausibility.

The strangest thing was that no one doubted that it might be true.

It’s strange because the University of Kentucky, with its grand tradition, opulent resources and boundless fan support, should be the ultimate “destination job.” But it’s treated like a stepping stone instead.

Everybody coaches with one foot out the door, whether it’s by choice (Calipari and Rick Pitino), acclamation (Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith) or gunpoint (Eddie Sutton and Billy Gillispie).

Nowhere is a coach more of a king than at UK – and nowhere is the crown worn with greater unease.

Standards are sky-high. Those who meet them are smothered with affection. Those who don’t are buried in retribution.

The job is so all-consuming that it’s taken for granted that no man can tolerate the strain for very long. Even before Chapman started the Lakers rumor, which appears to be baseless, fans regarded Calipari’s departure as a looming inevitability, less a matter of “if” than “when.”

From what I hear on talk radio in Louisville and Lexington, most fans expect Calipari to abdicate his throne within the next five years. In other words, despite the outlandish success Calipari has enjoyed in Lexington, his tenure is unlikely to last more than 10 seasons.

That sounds about right. Since Adolph Rupp was forced out in 1972, only Hall and Smith lasted longer than eight seasons. Hall was put to pasture just one year after making the Final Four. Smith, having failed for seven years to make the Final Four, jumped ship before he was forced to walk the plank.

Adolph Rupp

Adolph Rupp

The coaching turnover at UK is uncommonly high for a marquee program. The Wildcats have had six coaches since 1980. Compare to Duke (one), Louisville (two), Kansas and Connecticut (three) and Indiana and North Carolina (four).

To be fair, half of Rupp’s successors would have been shown the door at any school. Hall’s tenure was tainted by NCAA rules violations; Sutton’s was ruined by them. Gillispie was tactically and temperamentally unsuited to the UK job. He should have never been hired.

You would expect that at least one of the other three coaches – Pitino, Smith and Calipari – would settle in for a long reign of the sort enjoyed by Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. Perhaps Calipari will. But I doubt it.

Ruling Big Blue Nation is a difficult, demanding job. The stress is so great that the NBA, despite its 82-game season, can seem like a busman’s holiday.

nba-logoThat’s probably not the case, though in some respects, an NBA coach has a simpler job. There is no recruiting, no boosters, no NCAA and no academic concerns. And because an NBA coach usually lives in a cosmopolitan city with other sports franchises, he isn’t the sole focus of scrutiny and or the lone beacon of fame.

It’s not that way in Lexington. Calipari said during the NCAA tournament that he has aged in “dog years” at UK. I suspect Pitino and Smith often felt the same way.

If I was given a syringe of sodium pentothal and the chance to ask those three men one question, it would be this: What makes the UK job so uniquely exhausting?

I doubt we will ever know.

Coaches are politicians. The good ones know how to cultivate, manipulate and appease their constituencies. They are loath to burn bridges or step on toes. And they are genuinely grateful for the fans’ support, even after they leave. They aren’t going to muck everything up by detailing the difficulties they faced.

But there is clearly an odd dynamic at work in Lexington. The king and his subjects seem unable to reach equilibrium. The relationship never abides.

Hall and Smith might have stayed for decades, but they didn’t win enough to suit BBN and were driven away. Pitino and Calipari succeeded so spectacularly that they could’ve turned the job into a perpetual sinecure – and maybe Calipari will. But don’t bet on it.

It seems that the kind of man capable of fulfilling BBN’s outsized desires is also the kind of man who is too driven and restless to settle down. He must conquer a new and greater challenge – or fall flat on his face in the trying.

He’s also the kind of man who eventually feels suffocated by all the attention. The downside of having a fan base so large that it actually deserves to be called a “nation” is that the lunatic fringe is proportionately larger and louder too.

There are a lot of UK fans who simply love too much. They mail sonograms of their unborn children, hailing the arrival of new Wildcat star 18 years hence. It creeps people out. The king can’t even dine out in peace. Why do you think Pitino built his own restaurant?

Some UK fans hate too much as well. Ask Chapman and Calipari’s daughter, Erin, both of whom were subjected to vile personal attacks on Twitter this week.

Kentucky basketball means so much to so many that the weight of their hopes and expectations grinds down coaches over time. That’s probably why UK has been more of a way station than a destination. Those who might stay are asked to leave. Those invited to stay can’t help but leave.


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