End of Calipari era seems inevitable -- but he can make it less messy

Mar. 22—There are two types of Kentucky basketball fans: Those John Calipari lost early on and those he lost later.

The first group, by all estimations, seems significantly smaller than the first, but they're out there — myself included. The ones who valued tradition even more than exciting results and players who put the name on the front of the jersey ahead of the one on the back.

We were the ones irritated by Calipari's embrace of the "one-and-done" trend, seemingly doing more to encourage players to leave and make money elsewhere than to stay and be a part of this storied program. His declaration that the "biggest day" in program history was putting five players into the first round of the same draft, and worst, a sense of arrogance about it all, as if this was just the way things were now if you wanted to win (something a quick scan of the rosters of all but two NCAA tournament champions since NBA age eligibility was raised in 2006 will disprove).

The second, larger group of fans cared less about roster flux and more about Cal's results. Which, from 2010-15, were wildly impressive, and probably unsustainable. Calipari made the Final Four in 2011, went back and won it all in 2012, made an improbably run there in 2014, and had a Final Four team that was one win away from being undefeated in 2015. Four berths in five years. It's not hard for even someone like me to understand why Cal captured the loyalty of this segment of the fan base so quickly.

Logic would seem to dictate that it's most likely for power programs to experience a Final Four or title every few years, spread out as the unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament takes its toll in the meantime. However, UK fans over the years have been accustomed to taking their periods of tournament success in short clustered bursts, going all the way back to Adolph Rupp's run of titles in 1948, '49 and '51. For the next four decades, tourney success was more evenly distributed over the years; then Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith came along and delivered four final fours in six years, two titles in three.

Viewed through that lens, it shouldn't be all that surprising that a) UK has been on a dry spell since 2015, and b) that makes the fan base itchy. Making it worse, however, is that UK not only missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but that might be the worst season in program history depending on how you judge it, finishing 9-16 with the worst winning percentage since the 1920s. Cal's teams have also lost in the first round twice — to 15-seed St. Peter's in 2022, and on Thursday night, to 14th-seed Oakland. Note that neither Pitino nor Smith ever missed the tournament for reasons other than pre-existing NCAA penalties (such as Pitino's early years) or even lost before the second round of the tournament while at Kentucky.

Calipari's style of play has not evolved along with the game, and relies too much on individual abilities rather than operating within a clear system. His rotations have been a mess, his decisions about who to start have been highly questionable, his defense fell off the map this year. And he still likes to blame stuff on the team just being "young" — which it is seemingly every year, and apparently other teams are not if UK is young in comparison to them. Which means Cal is the common denominator there, and long ago should have started seeing "young" as a problem he needs to fix rather than a fact of life to accept.

So Calipari is no longer winning big. This means he has now lost Fan Group No. 2, and this is evident by following social media and fan forums. The relationship between Calipari and the UK fan base has become too strained, too toxic to move forward.

Much is made of the "lifetime contract" Calipari received in 2019 which has reportedly made for a massive buyout that would make it very expensive for UK to fire him. But that shouldn't be necessary.

Calipari is clearly a person with a lot of pride. Many might call it arrogance, and I wouldn't disagree. But he has earned the right to feel as if he's been a success, not just given his time at UK but in building the program at UMass and getting them to a Final Four (which happened, no matter how much the NCAA thinks it can revise history with the word "vacated") and doing the same at Memphis (which, yes, also happened in real life — sorry, NCAA).

This pride is at its worst when it manifests as calling concerned fans "Basketball Bennies" or skipping out on postgame interview obligations. But that pride can still be a good thing — if it inspires Calipari to want to protect what's left of his legacy.

Stepping up now and saying he realizes that things have gotten bad, that there are a lot of factors in that but being willing to take even a little bit of blame, and that maybe it's time to move on and save UK the headache and expense of a messy divorce would be good pride. It would allow Cal to save a little bit of face, to fall on the proverbial sword, and to acknowledge that the time to part is here.

Calipari irked fans — especially those of us in Group A — with postgame comments Thursday night about how it's hard for him to break away from the idea of working with young players. (There's nothing wrong with recruiting young guys, of course; just try to recruit players you can develop over the course of three or four years like other programs do rather than ones you just rent for a year or two. But I digress.)

So do that. Cal has plenty of money to do whatever he wants in life. If that's what he really cares about, he can use it to start programs to help young people in a more direct way — maybe even ones who don't play basketball. He can find something new to be passionate about, something that stirs the fire within him that has clearly turned to embers. Calipari is a very savvy salesperson and businessman; lots of young men and women out there would benefit from having someone like that help them become millionaires, whether or not they have a crossover dribble.

There are lots of ways Calipari can take his pride and knowledge and experience and resources and make a difference. Stepping away from UK shouldn't be the end of that; it could be the beginning of something even better. And that's how I'd advise him to look at it.

But he needs to step away. Because right now, he's not helping anyone. He's harming. He's harming the spirit of people all over the Commonwealth. He's harming the players on his own team by failing to coach them properly. He's harming the Kentucky name, the brand, the legacy. He's harming the tradition that moms and dads have passed on to their children in this state for generations — something people from rich Lexington neighborhoods to poorer rural coal mining communities have taken great pride in as part of their collective identity as Kentuckians — as young people today likely just know Kentucky as a program with a lot of sound and fury surrounding it, signifying very little in the way of success.

Yes, it would be hard to walk away from the money Cal would be owed by UK, but — as one might observe when considering the value of the college experience over the quick and ephemeral windfall of the NBA — money isn't everything. Calipari has always seemed like someone who thrives on being beloved by loyal followers, and that's something few people get to enjoy in life. It's also basically gone now for him; as someone who's already plenty rich, I'd think it might be worth it for him to give up a few millions to get some piece of that adulation back. But that's me — and clearly he and I don't think much alike.

I've never been a Calipari fan, but I understand why he had the fans that he did. But he doesn't have them anymore. So I think for the first time in a long time, I can speak for most of the fan base when I say to Calipari: Step down. Do the right thing. Make the hard decision yourself and spare others from having to do it. Find something new that inspires you. Allow the people who were your fans at Kentucky to respect you one last time as you do something respectful of them. Don't make the parting any more acrimonious than it needs to be.

Just as there are two types of Kentucky fans, there are two ways of saying goodbye to them. Calipari would do well to choose the one where he ends his career here on his terms rather than forcing the school and its donors to come up with a pile of money to shove at him and say, "Here, now go away." Because nobody — not even someone like me — would prefer to see things end so messily. That's not good for the program either — even if it's necessary.