Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins/Kevin Love and…John Calipari?
Last month, Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari received a lucrative offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to multiple reports. Team owner Dan Gilbert all but changed the organization’s name to the Cleveland Cals with an $80 million, 10-year contract proposition that included the positions of team president and head coach.
Cleveland was denied by Coach Cal, who “sacrificed” an opportunity with the Cavaliers when he accepted a seven year contract extension from Kentucky with $52.5 million guaranteed. If Calipari truly is the loyal leader of the Big Blue Nation for the foreseeable future, as he has reiterated publicly in the face of a myriad of rumors, why would the Cavaliers’ offer even exist, let alone be entertained?
Cal’s contract is a fulcrum and Cleveland’s offer was the leverage needed to catapult his salary skyward. Like Nick Saban’s reported $100 million flirtation with Texas, the best coaches are often the wisest politicians. “I’ve got the best job in the world” is a sentiment expressed by powerful coaches with public perception in mind. The same star coaches later become the recipient of a massive contract extension. Kentucky may be the best job in college basketball, but what if Calipari is searching for something more?
Alexander the Great wept because no more worlds were left to conquer. Calipari has irrefutably conquered college basketball. After No. 1 recruiting classes and Final Four appearances seemingly every year, questions regarding his future desire to continue at the college level have resurfaced. Recruiting, Calipari’s strongest quality, becomes easier with every Final Four appearance and freshman drafted in the first round. Former Wildcat Demarcus Cousins told Bill Simmons on “The B.S. Report” last week that Calipari barely had to speak during the recruitment pitch. Cousins signed with the Wildcats five years ago.
Fifteen years ago, Calipari was fired after a 3-17 start to the season with the New Jersey Nets. As the face of Kentucky basketball, a forgettable tenure in professional basketball could have been just that for Calipari. But as one of the greatest basketball coaches in the world, a desire to succeed in the NBA may still be burning.
Success in the NBA in the last 10 years appears to hinge on one of two factors. One: Have a great coach, (Spurs, Mavericks, Celtics, Lakers) or two: have Lebron (Heat.)
Now the Cavaliers possess the second factor, but the Cavs also hired David Blatt, a head coach with little success or experience coaching in the United States. Gilbert fired former coach Mike Brown twice and Byron Scott once in the past four years, which means Gilbert is dauntless when it comes to firing coaches under contract and Blatt could be next. If Cleveland’s season goes awry, Lebron continues to control the world by exercising his opt-out clause after one year, Kentucky wins another national title and Calipari decides he has absolutely dominated the world of college basketball, would the president/coach offer from the Cavaliers reemerge? In May, Calipari said he would “love” to coach Lebron. Conceivably, Cal may receive his chance.
An offer to coach a talented Cavaliers team led by the league’s best player, as well as the transfer of his son from a local high school in Lexington, Ky. to a boarding school in Massachusetts, could pull Cal away from the Bluegrass. After carrying a program to an extraordinary height, a majority of Wildcat fans would be thankful for what Calipari has accomplished in Lexington.
If the Big Blue Nation somehow loses its president, who will take his place? Kentucky basketball does not possess a “coach-in-waiting,” but several coaches could seize power of the most successful program in college basketball history and continue the surging Wildcat tradition. Every powerful company or program needs a back-up plan. In a future period of chaos resulting from the hypothetical departure of Calipari, four coaches could “succeed and proceed” at the helm of Kentucky basketball.
Backup Plan: Top Four Hypothetical Replacements for Coach Cal
Lebron went home, could John Pelphrey do the same?
The 46-year-old former Kentucky Mr. Basketball from Paintsville, Ky. is currently an assistant coach with Florida. Prior to his second stint with the Gators, Pelphrey served as head coach for two different schools, improving a South Alabama program from 2002 to 2007 and recording a winning record in four years at Arkansas.
Pelphrey may not be a name the majority of Americans would recognize, but like his play as a Kentucky Wildcat in the early 1990s, Pelphrey possesses a style that is truly “unforgettable” in the minds and hearts of the Big Blue faithful.
With the experience of leading an SEC program, coaching under a two-time national championship-winner in Billy Donovan and seeing first-hand the applied pressure of coaching the Wildcats, Pelphrey could be targeted as a replacement. In a hypothetical world where Calipari is in the NBA and all of the celebrity coaches are further cemented in their programs, Pelphrey could return to his alma mater and erase the memories of “the shot.”
3. Steve Masiello
Another former Wildcat could emerge as a quality candidate to replace Calipari in the form of Steve Masiello.
Despite leaving Kentucky without actually graduating, Masiello was able to land the head coaching position at Manhattan and receive an offer from South Florida earlier this summer. Coupled with an actual diploma, Masiello’s résumé should be strengthened even more after another successful season with Manhattan.
Having played and coached under Rick Pitino, Masiello instills a seemingly-identical philosophy. Manhattan deploys a physical, defensive-minded strategy. The Jaspers were second in the nation in personal fouls committed and led the MAAC Conference in forced turnovers a season ago. Like Pitino, Masiello chooses to use full court pressure for a majority of the game, creating offense from turnovers and free throws after drives to the basket. If Masiello did follow in Cal’s footsteps, the 36-year-old could maximize his basketball strategy with solid recruiting classes for decades to come.
2. Brad Stevens
Butler was an afterthought. Before 2007, the Bulldogs had appeared in the NCAA Tournament six times.
That year, Brad Stevens was promoted to head coach and now, Butler has 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, including two second place finishes in the national championship game.
Stevens made the jump to the Boston Celtics after leading the Bulldogs to seemingly-impossible success. Boston is rebuilding and Stevens is one of the architects, but what if the process is too slow? Stevens wasted no time turning around Butler. If a position at possibly the most prolific program in college basketball history was offered by Kentucky, would Stevens leave the most successful NBA franchise of all time?
Stevens certainly possesses the talent to overachieve and lead a program to unimaginable levels, which makes the proposition of Stevens coaching a program with championship aspirations every year tantalizing. The move would be fitting, as a 37-year-old who just began to leave his mark in college basketball before jumping to the NBA swaps places with a 55-year-old coach who did the same at a young age and now possesses an already hall-of-fame worthy legacy. Stevens could return to the college game and leave a Ruppian legacy at Kentucky.
1. Orlando Antigua
When Pitino traded the Wildcat for the angry Irish man logo by accepting an offer from the Boston Celtics, Kentucky basketball was in a quandary. Kentucky had just lost in the national title game one year after capturing its sixth championship. Pitino reinvigorated a program that was in duress and ignited a dormant fan base. Ultimately, an assistant coach on the staff named Orlando “Tubby” Smith was named to replace Pitino.
Kentucky basketball faces a similar situation if Calipari chooses to leave. Orlando Antigua left Memphis with Calipari and joined his staff in Lexington in 2009. For the past six seasons with Memphis, Kentucky and the Dominican Republic national team, Antigua studied Cal’s coaching and recruiting methods. Antigua’s success as an assistant coach and recruiter spurred an offer from South Florida, where Antigua will begin his head coaching career this season.
Antigua said he plans to implement the style and philosophy he learned under Calipari in his tenure at USF. If both coaches succeed in the Calipari system next season and reach the expectations of the respective programs, the system could stay in place next year no matter where Cal is coaching.
Consistent success has been the model of the Calipari era and if the time has come for the era to end, the hiring of Antigua would be the appropriate maneuver to ensure the stability of the Kentucky basketball program.
Life is contingent. The image of Calipari coaching Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers just does not seem plausible.
But sports are often a reflection of life as legacies and desires of coaches can change without warning. The purpose of the replacement discussion is important, because having an adequate successor in mind becomes increasingly crucial with every deep NCAA Tournament run by Cal’s Cats. Regardless of the excitement boiling in preparation for this season, completely ignoring the possibility of Calipari’s departure is dangerous. Like a city plans for the rare occurrence of a natural disaster, Kentucky must have some semblance of a backup plan in place for the recovery process, should Cal decide to leave.
For now, one thing is known. Calipari has delivered magnificence for Kentucky basketball in the form of four No. 1 recruiting classes, one Elite Eight appearance, three Final Four appearances, one national title and countless, everlasting memories.
Despite the allure of the NBA, I predict no matter what happens with Lebron and the Cavaliers, Cal is staying in the Bluegrass and Kentucky basketball will win another national championship under Calipari and perhaps not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven more may follow.
To learn about the top five upcoming matchups for the 2014-15 season, click here.