Refuse to Lose: Master salesman Calipari is the best at what he does
People love to hate Kentucky coach John Calipari, but he's a winner
Calipari never stops selling, never stops looking for an angle to succeed
Whatever he does -- coach, recruit, raise money for Haiti -- he does with gusto
This winter, when word spread that Kentucky coach John Calipari was raising money for Haiti, most college basketball fans figured they'd misheard. Surely, they thought, Cal is raising money for Hades.
Mass-appeal dramas need a villain, and Calipari is the biggest villain in his sport since Jerry Tarkanian. Understand: This doesn't mean he is the worst guy in his sport. There are a lot of coaches vying for that title.
But Calipari is the biggest villain. Virtually everybody outside of Kentucky wants to see him lose.
Why Calipari? Who died and made him Chief Rogue?
If Cal haters and Cal lovers can agree on anything, it should be this: he is better at what he does than almost anybody else. They just happen to disagree on what he actually does.
It helps to think of Calipari more as a salesman than a coach. He never stops selling, never stops looking for an angle. Calipari's professional life can be summed up by the slogan he is now pitching on UK T-shirts: "Refuse to Lose." Calipari didn't invent that phrase, but he did swipe it when he coached at UMass, copyright it and make a whole bunch of money off it.
REFUSE TO LOSE. It sounds like such a simple, inspirational phrase for a team -- and it can be. But it also describes the man. He's a scrapper, and will weigh all of his options besides losing.
Calipari has done the most remarkable coaching job of this season, and nobody is close. Think about it: He convinced John Wall, Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins to come to Memphis, inserted clauses into their letters of intent so they could go somewhere else if Calipari left, convinced Memphis to keep its Notice of Allegations from the NCAA quiet for three months, took the Kentucky job before anybody knew about that notice, then convinced Wall and Cousins to join him in Lexington. That is refusing to lose.
But Calipari wasn't done. He coached the heck out of a team led by two freshmen. People figure Kentucky is winning simply on great talent, but talented young teams fall apart every year. Cousins is supposedly a difficult personality, and he is NBA-bound after this season, but Calipari gets on him, and Cousins responds. That is refusing to lose, too.
After he was fired by the New Jersey Nets, Calipari sat on Larry Brown's bench in Philadelphia, as an assistant. In a thousand years, Rick Pitino never would have done that. But that's something people don't always realize about Calipari: He does not let his ego get in the way.
A lot of the most famous coaches hate one-and-done players -- guys who star as freshmen, then bolt. If you have any old-school blood in your veins, you believe freshmen are supposed to learn tough lessons, then apply them as sophomores.
Not Cal. He has told people privately that he loves one-and-done players. It's another angle for him, another way to win. He sells Wall and Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans on playing a ton of minutes, thriving in his dribble-drive offense, then leaving for the NBA.
The true salesman never stops selling. Calipari is hawking not one, not two, but three instructional videos for that dribble-drive offense. He'll push those videos and his book and REFUSE TO LOSE T-shirts and the success of the Kentucky women's team and the Haiti relief effort and Memphis political causes and a childhood cancer or juvenile diabetes fund-raising drive, and he'll do it all with gusto.
Just this week Calipari told SI's Dan Patrick that Wall "wants to stay. We'll talk about it after the season." Wall has about as much chance of playing for Kentucky next season as I do. Calipari knows that better than anybody. But the idea that Wall loves school -- and loves playing for Calipari -- can only help the coach.
Love him or hate him, but Calipari is the best at what he does. Lots of coaches have shady figures steering players toward them. Calipari has the best: William Wesley, better known as Worldwide Wes. Calipari denies that Wesley sends him players. I don't know anybody in basketball who believes that. But who knows? Maybe he's sold a few people on that idea too.
Calipari has famously taken two schools to the Final Four and then had to vacate both appearances. Both times, he got there and kept selling. In 1996, he lectured the media about finally discovering what a wonderful school UMass is. In 2008, he said Memphians "see my team as their children. They see them and say, 'There is hope.' "
And when those appearances had to be vacated, Calipari sold the NCAA on the idea that he wasn't personally responsible. (Rose, his star recruit from Chicago, surely had somebody take his SAT in Detroit -- Worldwide Wes's town -- without Calipari's knowledge. Of course.)
Always, Calipari thrives. This is what drives other coaches nuts ---that, whatever the heck he is doing, he is doing it too well. John Chaney once threatened to kill him during a press conference. Bob Knight said this season that he doesn't understand how Calipari has a job. Rick Pitino, who got Calipari his job at UMass, won't even talk to the guy. Another coach said that with Calipari, "there is so much smoke, you can't even see the fire." His fellow SEC coaches gave their Coach of the Year award to Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, even though Cal went 14-2 in the league with two freshmen as his best players.
Calipari just keeps rolling. Since he first arrived on the national stage, Calipari has changed offenses, stars and schools. He has gone from the hot new coach that everybody loved too much to the crafty veteran that people hate too much.
When people attack him, he fights back. Refuse to lose. But he'll open his home to fans and his program to anybody who can help him win.
There are plenty of people in college basketball who think it will all come crashing down around Calipari -- that we will witness the professional death of a salesman. I don't know. We won't know for years. All I know is that I filled out my bracket the other day. I'm picking Kentucky.
More College Basketball
College Basketball Truth & Rumors