On and off-court, combination of Calipari and Kentucky is unbeatable
John Calipari landed the Harrison twins despite family connections to Maryland
The last time a school-coach combo had such success was John Wooden and UCLA
Calipari has a star-studded brand at Kentucky that no one else can compete with
A tweet came from CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish about 90 minutes before Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Texas-based twin guards who comprise one of the biggest package deals in recruiting history, announced they were attending Kentucky, leaving Maryland fans bemoaning their bridesmaid fate. In it, Parrish wrote that two high-major coaches told him that they were hoping Kentucky landed the twins because John Calipari "can only take so many. This would fill two of his slots."
First thought: Those coaches are smart. They know Mark Turgeon is much less of a risk to beat them for their own primary targets, so limiting Cal's reach is strategically valuable. Second thought: These coaches know the truth. There's one completely dominant factor in today's recruiting world -- Cal, Inc.
In the aftermath of Kentucky's national championship victory in April, Calipari was oddly nonplussed, saying the title was important to him because it would get the media to stop asking him when he would win one and allowed him to focus on his job. Then he said he was going out recruiting later that week because, you know, he was about to have six guys drafted, including another No. 1 overall pick. In my wrap-up column that night, I noted that this had been almost two decades in the making, principally since Calipari ALWAYS has landed players.
The marriage of Calipari with the storied history, resources and relentless passion of Kentucky, though, has created an unassailable monster. Calipari, always masterful at the off-court game within the game, now has the game's most massive stage onto which he can invite guests. Like Jay-Z. Like Drake. Like the ubiquitous Worldwide Wes. Calipari has created the clearest, most enticing pitch possible to elite high schoolers. Come to Kentucky, play in huge games, hobnob with your favorite rap stars, and then be in a position to get guaranteed millions, compounded by access to all of the myriad connections that cycle through the Kentucky family. Calipari has evolved from coach to CEO and Kentucky is Apple. Cal Inc. may not always produce the best product, but it's the best-branded product, and that means people will buy and buy and buy.
Getting the Harrisons is a big deal. They are excellent players likely headed to the NBA lottery sooner rather than later. The bigger picture, though, is what truly matters here. Calipari just busted Maryland for a pair of megarecruits whose father has local roots and who have longstanding ties to Under Armour, which is attempting to turn Maryland into Oregon East. Cal nailed down two of the No. 1 positional recruits in the class of 2013,all of whom have been considering the Wildcats. Two of the second-best players by position are also considering the Cats. As is the kid who is considered the third-best power forward, only because two other Kentucky targets are ranked ahead of him. Julius Randle, the top-ranked small forward, all but batted his eyelashes at Cal this past summer, hoping to secure a golden ticket to Lexington. Now that the Harrisons will be there, the enticement is all that much greater, although the number of scholarships available is dwindling. Supply, meet demand.
And this isn't stopping anytime soon, at least as long as the Cal Inc. machine is humming in Lexington. In the class of 2014, uberprospect Andrew Wiggins, stud big man Jahlil Okafor and small forward Theo Pinson -- considered first, third and eighth in the nation overall -- are already on the Wildcats' list. How many of those guys Cal will land will depend much more on how many spots he'll have available and who actually returns than whether he'll legitimately lose them to other programs.
The last time the college game was this skewed may have been the salad days of the UCLA dynasty, where John Wooden got his pick of the nation's talent with the help of Sam Gilbert's wallet. There are better coaches around Division I than Calipari, but he's proven conclusively over the last five years that he can import elite talent and mold it within a season to great heights. He rode Derrick Rose to a national title game and John Wall and Co. to the Elite Eight. Heck, he got a team heavily influenced by a kid nicknamed "Jorts" to a Final Four in what was considered a transitional year before he loaded up for bear again. Last season's team finished as one of the best college teams of recent vintage.
If Cal had somehow lost this particular recruiting battle, whatever. He'd land four other studs and win some more. The fact that he did overcome all of what was on the table for Maryland, though, should scare the heck out of every other coach. In a sport where dozens of coaches make multiple millions of dollars a year, one of them is completely obsoleting everyone else's conception of what makes for a successful recruiter. Hobnobbing with rappers. 1.2 million Twitter followers. Self-serving spin worthy of the Presidential election while at the same time, putting his players' career ambitions first. A master brand builder, whatever grey areas Calipari operates in, there is very legitimate substance backing him.
No one is prepared to compete with this. Kentucky has become the hot club with the velvet rope. The pretty people are working the bouncers, trying to find a way in. All the while, the club owner watches the scene unfold from his office. He smiles, sits back, counts his cash and laughs, knowing business is good. Very, very good.