Rupp, Hall, Pitino, Smith and Calipari.
Based on winning percentage and longevity, these five men are the greatest coaches in the history of Kentucky basketball, and each led the Wildcats to the pinnacle of college basketball greatness.
Since he was hired in 2009, all John Calipari has done in five seasons is reach the NCAA Elite Eight and National Semi-Final game in his first two seasons respectively, win the national title in 2012 and finish runner-up last season.
The 2012 National Championship title was the first for Kentucky basketball since 1998, a short championship outage for most programs, but a miserable drought for Wildcat fans.
Seven NCAA Championship banners were lifted into the rafters in Rupp Arena before the Calipari era, four of which were contributed by the arena’s namesake. For now, the ability to compare Calipari’s legacy to that of the man who created the Big Blue Nation is impossible.
However, it is prudent to compare Calipari to the other three Adolph Rupp successors who brought a title back to the Bluegrass state.
John Calipari vs. Joe B. Hall
Hall is adored by the Big Blue Nation. Being born in Kentucky, coaching under and following in the footsteps of Rupp and possessing a likable personality was enough to overcome the illegal player payment allegations.
Hall needed just five years to help hoist a championship banner for the Wildcats in 1978. Hall was an excellent coach, but the controversy surrounding the Hall administration’s recruiting methods damages the argument that Hall was a better coach than Calipari.
I know what you are thinking, Calipari has baggage too. The “Marcus Camby-receiving-money- from-agents scandal was unfortunate, but the other allegation regarding Derrick Rose’s ACT is indicative of the recruiting world in the 21st century. With the technology available today, illegal recruiting is 1000 times more difficult. Calipari is already the best recruiter in college basketball, which means he does not need shady boosters to attract players to Kentucky.
Neither of those allegations had any direct relation to Calipari, while the Hall recruiting scandal has a clear link to his name. Hall finished with a 74.8 winning percentage at Kentucky while Calipari has won 82.2 percent of the time at Kentucky.
Hall was faced with an incredible task when he followed one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history and did not disappoint, but because of the allegations and lower winning percentage, Calipari wins this battle.
Better coach: Calipari
Speaking of hard acts to follow, both of these coaches were also placed in situations where they had to follow an extraordinary head coach. Smith inherited the pressure of succeeding with Rick Pitino’s roster. Calipari had to follow in the footsteps of fan-favorite Billy Clyde Gillispie.
Joking aside, Smith had legitimate success at the Wildcat helm. Far too often, critics try to diminish Smith’s coaching ability. “He did it with Pitino’s players!” or “any coach could have done it with that talent,” are the most common arguments against Smith.
In response to these claims, Smith was an assistant under Rick Pitino, which means he was part of the staff that recruited this “incredible talent.” Extrapolating from this point, none of the players on the 1998 championship team were all-Americans, and although four would go on to play in the NBA, only three were drafted, the other played in just 18 career games and the group produced only one combined NBA All-Star game appearance.
Smith did not inherit a championship. Smith led the program to its seventh title in Wildcat history, went back to the Elite Eight the following year and again in 2003, led Kentucky to the Sweet Sixteen two other times and in 10 years, Smith never missed the NCAA Tournament.
Calipari did miss the NCAA Tournament. In his fourth season as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, Calipari witnessed his team finish with a 21-12 record and an embarrassing first round loss to Robert Morris University in the National Invitational Tournament.
Smith never did THAT, but Smith also never led the Wildcats to the Final Four three times in a four year span. Calipari has spoiled Kentucky basketball fans since 2009, and although Smith did recruit future quality NBA players like Tayshaun Prince, Rajon Rondo and Jodie Meeks, Calipari is one of the greatest recruiters in college basketball history.
In 2014 I hope the “good recruiter, average coach” argument is officially abolished. No high school basketball player in the world wants to play for a subpar coach. Calipari is a preeminent coach and his ability to attract the best players in high school basketball to Kentucky every year is supreme.
Smith was a consistent, successful, kind-hearted coach while at Kentucky, but is not quite on the level of Cal.
Better coach: Calipari
Pitino’s departure and return to the state of Kentucky as a head coach can be explained in a metaphor.
Pitino was the hometown jock with the high school sweetheart who graduated, went off to college, met someone new, failed out, got dumped, then went back to his hometown and started dating his ex-girlfriend’s little sister.
Beginning in 1989, Pitino helped Kentucky return to glory. Thanks to the improvement of the Wildcats, Pitino garnered immense popularity and adoration. The relationship between Pitino and Kentucky basketball continued, as Pitino even gave Kentucky basketball a ring in 1996.
The romance seemed to be a heaven-made match, until it ended abruptly after the following season and Pitino left Kentucky for what he believed to be a more attractive relationship with the Boston Celtics. Kentucky fans were hurt, but understood Pitino’s motive. The Pitino and Kentucky basketball relationship helped Kentucky back on its feet, meaning there were no hard feelings.
But after the Celtics dumped Pitino, he came back to the state of Kentucky and started dating Kentucky basketball’s little sister, the University of Louisville.
Most Wildcat fans still struggle to forgive Pitino for choosing to coach Kentucky’s most hated rival, which is why Pitino’s accomplishments at Kentucky are often forgotten. However, what Pitino did at Kentucky was truly incredible. Pitino took over a program that was entrenched in controversy and a postseason ban. Pitino coached the 1992 team nicknamed the “Unforgettables” that finished 29-7, reached the Elite Eight and…everyone knows the rest of the story.
Despite how difficult and confusing it is to admit, Pitino is an incredible coach and truly did help thrust the Wildcats back into the forefront of college basketball royalty. In the 1996 championship season, Pitino led the Wildcats to a 34-2 record. In Calipari’s championship season, Kentucky finished 38-2.
Pitino recruited and signed incredible high school players at Kentucky, but did not sign high school All-Americans at the untouchable, efficient rate of Calipari. In eight seasons as Kentucky’s head coach, Pitino signed 14 future NBA players. In just five seasons under Calipari, 19 UK players will have been drafted in the NBA after Julius Randle and James Young’s names are called in June.
Calipari clearly has the advantage when it comes to recruiting history at Kentucky, which is the only real advantage Calipari has in the “better coach” argument. The comparisons between the two are eerily similar.
Whether it is the Italian heritage or that both took over a program in turmoil and quickly led the team back to greatness, it truly is a close race. Calipari’s has a slight edge over Pitino in winning percentage at Kentucky at 82.2 percent compared to 81.4 percent.
The only real way to decide the better coach in this situation is to measure Calipari as the head coach of Kentucky vs. Rick Pitino as the head coach of Louisville.
In the last five years, Kentucky has defeated Louisville six out of seven times, including once in the Sweet 16 and once in the Final Four.
If Hall, Pitino, Smith and Calipari are the heads of the Kentucky basketball coaching Mt. Rushmore, Adolph Rupp is the Grand Canyon.
Rupp coached the Wildcats for 41 seasons from 1930-1972. Rupp cultivated the hysteria that immerses the Wildcats. However, college basketball was radically different when Rupp was at the helm. When the game changed, both fundamentally and racially, Rupp often stubbornly refused to change with it.
After the most important game in the history of college basketball was played and Texas Western defeated the Wildcats in the 1966 National title game, dunking was outlawed during the following season. Rupp despised the slam dunk and he and an anti-dunking group of coaches and NCAA officials were able to force the ban that lasted until the end of the 1976 season.
Rupp also had a massive amount of success with the Wildcats, winning 876 games, but Rupp’s 25-0 1953-54 Wildcats were not the only Kentucky team to achieve a perfect season. The first Kentucky coach to lead a Wildcat team to perfection is none other than head coach E.R. Sweetland, who led the Wildcats to a 9-0 record during the 1911-1912 season. Which makes me wonder, did Wildcat fans make “9-0” shirts during the summer of 1911?
Rupp’s personal beliefs and the era in which he coached often contribute to speculation. The “what if” game is often played with Calipari and Rupp, as questions like “what if Calipari coached at the same time?” or “what if Rupp could coach now, how well would he do?” are asked.
Those questions are implausible, but because Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. is on the verge of demolition and blueprints for a new stadium are being discussed, one “what if” question could still be answered.
If Calipari continues to succeed and win more titles, could Kentucky’s future home games be played in the Calipari Coliseum?
If the first five years of the Calipari era are an indication of things to come, Calipari could one day stand alone at the summit of the Kentucky basketball coaching mountain.