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