Horse racing, bourbon and basketball are the most prestigious entities in Kentucky.
In a state where the people harvest corn and tobacco on grass as blue as the sky and mine coal as dark as the night, basketball serves as an escape. The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team is the provider of refuge for Kentuckians all across the Commonwealth.
The 54-year-old Calipari became a hero to the big blue faithful after reaching the NCAA Division I Elite Eight, Final Four and winning the national title in his first three years, respectively.
Calipari’s immediate success was the kind Wildcat fans have demanded for years, dating back to the days of legendary coach Adolph Rupp’s decorated and controversial coaching career. Rupp won four national titles and instilled a basketball obsession in the DNA of Kentucky basketball fans.
“Bleed blue” is an expression repeated without a hint of sarcasm by a fan base that believes winning the national title every season is as rational expectation.
Calipari’s Wildcats failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season and instead suffered a humiliating defeat against Robert Morris University in the National Invitation Tournament as blue tears were shed across the state.
Coach Cal has referred to Wildcat fans as “crazy” and this may be an understatement. Prior to the Wildcat’s victory against rival Louisville in March, 2012, two elderly men came to blows in a Kentucky dialysis clinic.
Last December, one Kentucky fan called into a radio station and pleaded for the school to focus less on education and more on sports.
Despite Calipari’s basketball prowess, some Kentucky fans were outraged by the 2013 NIT appearance and have questioned the sustainability of the “one-and-done” recruiting strategy of Calipari.
As rumblings of animosity toward the man who led UK to its eighth national title appear to be growing in the Bluegrass state with every Kentucky loss, University of Texas head coach Rick Barnes is enjoying his 16th season in Austin despite a “mere” one Final Four appearance.
UK fans helped orchestrate the departure of Tubby Smith by placing “for sale” signs in his yard. It did not matter that Smith won the National Title in his first season in Lexington.
Nor did it matter that Smith won the SEC regular season and tournament titles five times each and reached the Sweet Sixteen six times and the Elite Eight four times. Kentucky fans demanded a new face of the program and they got what they wished for in Billy Gillespie.
Well, they got him for two seasons. Gillespie was fired in 2009 after an NIT appearance, despite the signing of four future NBA players.
For what UK fans lack in patience, they make up for in passion and tax payments. At $5.4 million, Calipari is the highest-paid state employee in Kentucky and the second highest-paid coach in college basketball, but how much more pressure can Cal take from the Big Blue Nation before he “dribbles drives” away from Lexington?
Upon the announcement of the finalization of the basketball team’s recruiting class for the 2013-2014 season, a proclamation was cast throughout Kentucky.
The class became known as the “greatest in the history of college basketball.” The team would surely finish 40-0 and t-shirts were even created predicting the perfect season.
Six losses later, a growing number of those “crazy” Kentucky fans fueled by speculation and pessimism, are on the brink of mayhem.
Speculation has risen that Calipari may leave Lexington after his son Brad graduates from a local high school next year. Some fans suggest he may desire a return to the NBA. Others believe Calipari’s system, the same one that was used during the 2012 championship season, is failing.
No matter the reason Calipari would want to leave Lexington, he should know one thing. The grass may be greener on the other side, but it certainly will not be bluer.