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Coach John Cailipari’s Approach: Is it Good or Bad in the Long Run?

March Madness is upon us, and the University of Kentucky is 34-0 and not done. So say their blue t-shirts. Many expect them to finish the season undefeated as NCAA champions. It certainly looks likely. They are to be commended. Coach Calipari is a recruiting machine, and has an unusual way of developing talent.

Calipari holds class on the Kentucky bench. (Photo: The Lexington Herald-Leader)

Calipari holds class on the Kentucky bench. (Photo: The Lexington Herald-Leader)

Let’s assess John Calipari’s approach to recruitment and coaching. I lay out this information not to draw a conclusion for you—but to start a conversation: assess.

UK spent just under $2 million over the last 5 years in recruitment (one of the highest rates) and Coach Cailipari is among the best recruiters in NCAA basketball. His second string could beat most other team’s first-string players, and he can rest them during a game more than other teams.

Coach Calipari’s approach to recruitment and coaching is simple: I will develop you and get you ready for a career in the NBA. This is not a pipe dream. If you play for him at UK, you have a higher chance of making the NBA than other teams.

Here are the “pros” and “cons” of his approach, as I see it:

The Pro…

Career readiness—which is what so many grads lack. In a day where our surveys show students are finishing school and feeling very unready for their career, Coach Calipari gets them ready for a career in the industry they love. Many analysts believe his Kentucky team could beat many teams in the NBA today. Fourteen of his players have gone to NBA as 1st round draft picks in his six years at Kentucky. It’s amazing.

The Con…

Many of these guys may not graduate. It’s the proverbial “one and done.” Most of his starters are freshmen and sophomores because so many got drafted last year before graduating. Sadly, while they may get drafted and paid well in the NBA…they also may not have job skills or life skills beyond the few years as a player. They have learned one “trade” but that trade will be only last for a relatively short time.

So is John Calipari’s approach good or not?

To be honest, I wish more teachers were approaching their work with the end in mind, like he is. We must get kids career-ready, where they’ve not merely mastered a classroom but a work ethic. They’ve mastered a skill. John has certainly built a work ethic in his guys. My hat’s off to him.

At the same time, if all UK is doing is building better players, but they gain no life skills or employability skills (soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, resourcefulness, etc)…their employment may be short-lived. Their skill development may just be shortsighted.

I have to think that winning it all, and going undefeated this season will add value to their lives. Consider how it must cultivate self-esteem in those young players, how it improves their marketability in the NBA, and deepens their confidence. I am just hopeful that what they learn goes beyond the basketball court. A whole world awaits them outside of an arena, where no one may be applauding them as they work in an office and they encounter no fame or fortune, no glitz or glamour in a workroom. I guess I simply wonder what’s best for those young men in the long run.

Is it possible to have both? John Wooden would say yes. So would Pat Summit. But it was more than about going pro. How do we get both?

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  1. Allen Adams on March 26, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Tim, I would consider the usual media attention surrounding the Kentucky team to provide them more emotional intelligence and communication skills far beyond the typical 18-19 year old would have or be exposed to. I would think a person’s problem solving, critical thinking, and resourcefulness would be independent of whether they are passionate about basketball, woodworking, or gaming. Whether it is Kentucky basketball, Alabama football, or any college or university sport, there are life lessons in dealing with teammates and coaches that prepare people for adulthood. I think there are certainly more pros than cons.

  2. Guest on March 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Here are some statistics that might shed some light on the subject!

    *Sports Illustrated estimated in 2009 that 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or facing serious financial stress within two years of ending their playing careers and that 60percent of NBA players are broke within five years of retiring from the game

    Also, having a huge contract does not translate into lifetime security for superstar performers. Receiving a basic education in college is a foundation for success after an athletic career has ended. Lacking a degree can make the eventual transition into mainstream life more difficult. At the same time, a college degree does not guarantee success.

  3. Chris Deane on March 26, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Another factor is the number of players returning to school in the off season to work on completing degrees because they recognize there will be life after basketball, or that injuries happen. I saw an article on that recently, which ties into the idea of doing both.

  4. Danny Rubin on March 29, 2015 at 7:37 am

    On the flipside, Kentucky’s players would be on an incredible high if they go undefeated and win it all. But then they might get drafted to terrible NBA teams, lose all the time and not handle it well.

    I think it’s healthier if Kentucky had lost one game — just to bring them back to earth and remember what losing feels like.

    Good piece, Tim!

  5. CJ Harp on March 29, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Great piece on Calipari’s efforts for career readiness, leadership development, team chemistry, and the potential to influence through humility.

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Coach John Cailipari’s Approach: Is it Good or Bad in the Long Run?