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Coach Calipari: The stone that creates the ripples in other’s lives

John Calipari (Vicky Graff Photo)

Contributing Writer

This is the last post in a series about the John Calipari era at UK. The previous posts covered the player groups from point guard to post players and others in between. This post is about the coach himself – John Calipari.

To understand the John Calipari coaching style I think you have to first understand Calipari’s philosophy of life. By his own admission he believes in “servant leadership” and wants to be “the stone that creates the ripples in other’s lives” and has said numerous times that he is a “players first” coach.

That philosophy is very unique in the coaching profession. I have never heard Rick Pitino at Louisville or Bill Self at Kansas or Tom Izzo at Michigan State claim to be a players first coach. They all seem to have great relationships with their players but I don’t see them tailoring their coaching style to help each individual player become the best they can be to prepare for a career in the NBA. Most coaching styles seem to be about getting the ” team” to be the best it can be. There is a subtle difference there. Let me explain.

In most coaches’ philosophies their main goal is to win championships. Conference Championships, as in Bill Self’s 13 straight Big 12 Championships, or National Championships, as in Coach K’s five National Championships. Calipari is also interested in winning championships and has won several – five Conference USA championships, five Atlantic 10 championships, five SEC championships and one National Championship – but he is equally as interested in putting players in a position to be successful in the NBA. He said as much in 2015.

“Last year we started the season with a goal,” he told the Alltech Rebelation crowd. “You may think that goal was to win the national title and win all the games and be… It was to get eight players drafted.”
John Calipari
May 20th, 2015

His goal to make the players the best version of themselves they can be seems to have a great impact on how he coaches the game.

In looking at Coach Cal’s defensive philosophy he plays strictly  a “man to man” switching defense. Each player is expected to guard any player on the floor at any time. That is especially difficult to do in some situations – like against a pick and roll offense – but it prepares the players for the next level.

Because Calipari refuses to play any type of zone defense (which is not allowed in the NBA) it sometimes puts his team at a disadvantage. If his team has an extreme mismatch at one or two positions on the floor either from a size differential or quickness differential sometimes a zone can be the answer to offset that difference.

Other coaches have successfully mixed in some type of zone defense with man to man to help their team be the most competitive they can be in a particular situation. In the short term it can help the team be successful but it is not most beneficial for the individual player’s defensive skills development.

On the offensive side of the ball Calipari is a big proponent of the “dribble drive” offense. One element of that type “one on one” offense is the “pick and roll” offense that is used in the NBA. The basic premise is to create a mismatch between offensive and defensive players that can be exploited by the offense. It is very effective if all teams are required to play man to man defense (as in the NBA).

Unfortunately for Coach Cal the NCAA has a 30 second shot clock and still allows teams to play zone defense. This can be a big obstacle to overcome for teams made up of inexperienced players. Without quick passing and correct movement without the ball into gaps in the zone it is very difficult to get a high percentage shot in 30 seconds against an effective zone defense. But in order to prepare players for a career in professional basketball where zone defense is not allowed it is in the player’s best interest to work mostly on man to man sets utilizing the “dribble drive” or “pick and roll ” elements in his main offense.

Lastly I would like to look at player and team development through player rotation in game situations. John Calipari tends to make a playing rotation based on the number of high quality players available on the roster. This allows all the players to develop individually in game situations and improve their skills to move to the next level – generally after one year of college basketball.

Unfortunately Calipari’s best teams have utilized a 7-man or less playing rotation. The 2011 Final Four team had a 6-man rotation. The 2012 National Championship team had a 7 man rotation. Same for the 2014 Runner up  team – a 7 man rotation. The only Calipari team to make it to the Final Four or better playing more than a 7 man rotation was the 2015 team that started out playing the platoon system and then settled into a 9 man rotation. With the talent on that team it makes me wonder if they could have won it all if the top 7 players had played 32 minutes per game.

With all that being said about Calipari’s coaching philosophies on offense, defense and playing rotation I think it is very evident that there is no better coach in the country at developing players to move on to the NBA.

I think there are coaches that better utilize the X’s and O’s but that doesn’t mean they are better coaches. John Calipari recruits the best talent (#1 or #2 ranked recruiting classes for 9 years straight), puts them in a situation to be successful (4 Final Fours and one National Championship in 8 years) and develops them into players that can be successful at the next level (28 players drafted in 7 seasons).

Dallas Cowboys legendary coach Tom Landry said:

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”

I think that sums up exactly what John Calipari does. And as a Hall of Fame coach he is very, very good at it.

1 comment

  1. Leadership… we commit to making those around us more successful and the rest always seems to take care if itself.

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