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John Calipari: Great coach or underachiever?

John Calipari thinks outside the box and does a lot of charitable work.
(Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

There are 351 Division 1 colleges and universities that field a men’s basketball team and compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament each year. Of that number only 68 teams actually make the field. Of the 68 teams only one wins the ultimate prize — the National Championship. The other 67 are considered failures. So are the other 284 teams that did not qualify to play in the tournament. That means there are 350 teams, coaches and universities that are considered complete failures at the end of each basketball season.

At least that’s what some of the mainstream national sports media would lead you to believe. Guys like Clay Travis at Fox Sports Radio or Pat Forde at Yahoo Sports or even Dan Wolken at USA Today. All have recently jumped on a bandwagon of basketball fans, analysts and pot-stirrers who believe that John Calipari is underachieving as the UK basketball coach.

The headline on Forde’s most recent article for Yahoo reads, “For Kentucky, a lifetime with John Calipari might not be the best idea.” Clay Travis said this about Calipari’s ability to coach basketball, “John Calipari has a great relationship with Nike to bring in players and then goes out and loses every year in the tournament.”  Lastly Dan Wolken said this about Calipari, “Cal’s teams have had a few really favorable opportunities  in the tournament and blown them.”

The most interesting thing about this whole debate about Calipari’s ability to coach basketball is that everyone is using a different measuring stick to decide what is a great coach. If a person were to look at just wins and losses Calipari’s at the top of the heap over the last 10 years at 305. If National Championships are the determining factor then Cal is behind Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Jay Wright at Villanova with two each to Calipari’s one. Some might say but what about runner-ups, Final Fours, Elite Eights and Sweet Sixteens. Who is ahead there? John Calipari leads each one of those categories.

There are a lot of factors that go into determining the “greatness” of a coach. What about giving back to the community? Which coach leads the country in working to generate donated dollars to help so many worthy charitable organizations? Who has a better record than Calipari in that area? What about player development? No one can beat John Calipari’s record of 32 active players in the NBA. And how many of those players are actively giving back to their communities because of what they learned at UK? Too many to count.

The point is that there many measurements that can be used to determine greatness. Some are numerical and others are not. But the numbers I posted at the beginning of the article should be proof enough that winning titles alone is not a good measuring stick for greatness. If it was then all 350 coaches each year would be considered failures and after so many failed seasons Hall of Fame coaches like Krzyzewski, Roy Williams at North Carolina and Bill Self at Kansas among many others would be seeking other jobs.

By the way Krzyzewski, who many consider to be one of the all time great coaches along with John Wooden of UCLA, has won five titles in 44 years as a head coach. That’s a 13 percent success rate. Using the yardstick of only a National Championships would make Krzyzewski a complete failure as a coach also.

The debate about whether John Calipari is a great coach kind of reminds me of the Highlights magazines I used to read as a kid in the doctor’s office waiting room. It always had one big drawing of a nice picture of something like a playground or kids on a hike in the woods. Hidden in the drawing were all these other small pictures of items like a shoe or a comb or a watch. The trick was to look past the big picture so you could see all the other items. It all depended on your perspective. If you couldn’t see past the big picture you missed the important smaller pictures all together.

This is what the national media members are doing. Focusing on one picture — National Championships — while missing all the other smaller pictures that are just as important. Things like total wins, wins within each level of the NCAA Tournament, individual player development, community involvement and giving and conference championships. These are all things that have a lasting impact on any community and any athletic program.

The crazy thing about this debate is that everyone has an opinion — national sports writers, local sport writers, die-hard college basketball fans and the occasional basketball watcher — but when all the smoke clears there is only one opinion that really matters and that is the opinion of Mitch Barnhart, the University of Kentucky Athletic Director. 

And Mitch has already spoken. That’s why Calipari now has a lifetime contract with the University of Kentucky. You can’t get much better validation than that.


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  1. Overall, there is no better coach than Cal. Yes, I would like to see him win the championship every year, but that is not going to happen. The writers you mentioned only have one goal; get people to read their material, not matter how stupid, degrading, poorly written, or without merit. The only thing that matters is attention.
    Winning a championship takes preparation, good players, luck, and the right refs. There has never been a tournament where there are not a few games that if the refs made certain calls or didn’t make certain calls then a different team would have moved on.
    The luck, the refs, players making shots, and the players making plays has very little to do with the coach.
    Yes, I get frustrated with some of the things Cal does or doesn’t do, but there is not another coach I would pick to run this program over him.

    1. AMEN !!!

  2. I echo to your statement OldFan ! Cals record speaks for itself and it’s matter of time we will get back to the final four and hopefully hang another banner. No matter who’s coaching the cats they will never be satisfied regardless.

  3. OldFan nailed it! Cal’s ten year record exceeds any other coach’s and he is by far the man for the job at UK…be a sad day when he hangs it up.

  4. Pat Forde is a UK hater, has been for years , ever since he was at the Courier Journal years ago. As for Clay Travis, and Dan Wolken, well let’s see, they are a couple of real famous dudes now aren’t they? I guess those three guys didn’t see The great coach “K” lose twice in the last two years now in the elite 8, and with all that talent. Ole Roy and the “Cheatin Tarheels” didn’t last long either this year. Yet they didn’t mention them did they? It didn’t fit their narrative. Keith Peel got it right. Look at all the sweet sixteens, elite 8’s and final 4’s Calipari has taken UK. Now, If it is all about national championships, UK still has more than Duke, and Old coach “K” has been at Duke since the 1800’s. Also, I didn’t see much out of Jay Wright’s team this season now did we? Those three sound like a couple here on VV’s. AD Mitch B got it right. Lifetime contract, WOW. Hold on boys, No, 9 from Coach Cal is on the way. Just hide and watch. I look for that to happen in 2019-20.

  5. Old Fan did nail it. Larry this could be a post of its own! LOL This is long, I did a lot of research from the internet and not many words are actually mine. Most of the info came from UK Athletics in the coaches section. Some one needs to send this info to Forde. I get so upset/mad when someone slanders Cal. I would like for them to do what he has done, not just for the fans but for the boys who come in contact with him and who are lucky enough to be coached by him. They are family…what better proof do you need then Mrs Cal gives each player brownies for his birthday!

    I have always said I am satisfied with a winning season,not everyone can win a Title. Rupp had 4 in 41 years. There are too many great programs around the country now. WHY? Because of KENTUCKY. The teams saw what Kentucky was doing, they were beating up on everyone, North, East, South and West. The wanted a piece of the pie and started building up their programs…and now we have some very well coached elite teams to compete against.

    Let me know if you consider any of the listed coaches, other than Cal as underachievers.
    *Huggins has lead 2 teams and has never won a title. 31 years, 719-296 70.8 % NCAA Tournament Wins: 29 Final Four Appearances: 1992, 2010
    *What about Rick Barnes is he an underachiever, he has never won one.
    John Beilein, Michigan 482-298 61.8% Tournament Wins: 17 Final Four 2013
    Mike Brey, Notre Dame – 21 years, 455-229 66.5 % NCAA Tournament Wins: 12 Final Four – 0
    *Lon Kruger, Oklahoma has coached 30 years never won and only 2 Final Fours. 20 NCAA Tourney game wins…. 590-361 62.0%
    *Gregg Marshall, Wichita State 18 years, 18 years, 424-168 71% 1 final four
    *Shaka Smart, Texas 39 years old, 7 Years 183-69 72.6 % Conference Titles: Zero 7 NCAA Tournament Wins and only 1 Final Four appearance in 2011.
    *Tony Bennett, Virginia 10 years, 234-105 69.% zero appearances “In six trips to the NCAA tournament, Bennett has never been to the Final Four, hasn’t beaten a higher-seeded team and has been eliminated by an inferior opponent four times, including blowing a 16-point second-half lead against No. 10 seed Syracuse this past March.” That being said, I want him to win, he’s easy on the eyes, for a female…
    * Sean Miller 12 years, 308-108 74.%NCAA Tournament Wins: 17 Final Four Appearances: Zero
    *Thad Matta, Ohio State 16 years, 422-139 75.2% NCAA Tournament Wins: 24…Final Four Appearances: 2007, 2012 He Won 75% of his games at Butler, 77.2 % at Xavier and is still at 74.8 % with Ohio State…NO CHAMPIONSHIP
    *Mark Few, Gonzaga Career Record: 17 years, 466-111 80.8% NCAA Tournament Wins: 21 Final Four Appearances: Zero
    *Tom Crean, Indiana…no words…well, you know.
    *Mick Cronin, Cincinnati: One Sweet 16 appearance in 13 seasons
    *Scott Drew, Baylor: Before Drew, Baylor had never been to two consecutive NCAA tournament
    **and now, drum roll please….John Calipari at UK…Players First, Gold Standard and We are College Basketball. Kentucky record: 305-71 .811 Overall record: 708-208 .773
    “In his inaugural season as head coach of the Wildcats, Calipari posted his fifth straight 30-win season, the only coach in NCAA Division I history to do so. When he led Kentucky back to the No. 1 spot in the country, Calipari became one of only two coaches Frank McGuire in NCAA history to lead three teams to a No. 1 ranking. He led UMass to a No. 1 ranking in 1995 and 1996, and he led Memphis to the No. 1 spot during the 2008 season.”
    During 10 seasons at UK
    NCAA National Championships: 1 2012 NCAA
    Appearances: 18
    Sweet 16:13
    Elite 8:7
    Final Four 4
    NCAA Tournament Appearances: 18 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) **
    NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen: 13 1992, 1995, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019) **
    NCAA Tournament Final Four: 4 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) **
    NIT Championships: 1 2002)
    Calipari’s overall on-court record is 720-204 (.779) following his eighth season at UK. He entered the 2016-17 season with the third-highest winning percentage among active NCAA Division I coaches with five years of experience at college basketball’s Division I level, trailing only Mark Few and Roy Williams.
    Calipari is one of only two coaches (Williams) in NCAA Division I history to have 400 or more wins in his first 16 years as a head coach, and his 173 victories from 2008-12 are the most ever for a coach over a five-year span in Division I history. Since the 2005-06 season, he has the best winning percentage among all Division I coaches. On the NCAA Division I list for best on-court winning percentage (minimum 10 years), Calipari entered the 2017-18 season in fifth place and ahead of Krzyzewski, Bill Self, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins, Lute Olson, Dean Smith and Phog Allen.
    His 10 30-win seasons are third most for a head coach in NCAA Division I history, and he is the first coach in NCAA Division I history to record five straight on-court 30-win seasons. For his college career (26 years), Calipari has 24 seasons of 20 or more on-court wins and 17 different seasons of 25 on-court campaigns. His 24 consecutive on-court 20-win seasons is the second-longest streak in NCAA history, trailing only Smith, who had 27.

    His NCAA Tournament record is 51-17, a .750 winning percentage. His six Final Four appearances are tied for sixth most by a coach all-time, and his 11 straight NCAA Tournament wins prior to the 2014 national championship loss was the longest winning streak in the tournament since the Florida Gators won 12 straight in 2006 and 2007.
    • 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ‘Service Above Self’ Honoree
    • 2018 NABC Metropolitan Award
    • 2015 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Inductee
    • 2015 Associated Press National Coach of the Year
    • 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year
    • 2015 NABC National Coach of the Year
    • 2015 The Sporting News National Coach of the Year
    • 2015 Adolph Rupp National Coach of the Year
    • 2015 SEC Coach of the Year (AP/Coaches)
    • 2015 USBWA District IV Coach of the Year
    • 2012 Nell & John Wooden Coach of the Year Leadership Award
    • 2012 Naismith National Coach of the Year Finalist
    • 2012 SEC?Coach of the Year (AP/Coaches)
    • 2010 Adolph Rupp National Coach of the Year
    • 2010 Naismith National Coach of the Year Finalist
    • 2010 SEC?Coach of the Year (AP)
    • 2010 Sporting News SEC?Coach of the Year
    • 2010 Yahoo! Sports SEC?Coach of the Year
    • 2010 USBWA?District IV Coach of the Year
    • 2009 NABC National Co-Coach of the Year
    • 2009 Sports Illustrated National Coach of the Year
    • 2009 Phelan National Coach of the Year
    • 2009 Iba National Coach of the Year Finalist

  6. Just read where Cal said “he didn’t know Zion was going to be this good”.Is he the only one out there that didn’t? I wonder if he also knew how bad Nick and EJ were going to be?

  7. It doesn’t matter Mike he pick Duke and the media darlings and some TV analysis were saying Duke was the greatest team to assemble and they fail to live up the hype. Coach K choke big time.

    1. Agree with you on that. That will be a Mega Choke that won’t go away anytime soon. Did Cal choke during Wisc. game?

  8. What a bunch of BALONEY!!! 10 years and 1 national title, oh lets not forget the first round NIT loss to Robert Morris…a real powerhouse! Tubby Smith was run out of town with 1 national title and no NIT losses. It’s obvious a double standard exists. Maybe Tubby wasn’t white enough. Maybe we were so horrified with Billy Clyde, that we have lowered our expectations. We used to be competitive with anyone, but even then we got outcoached 3 out of the 4 times where we clearly had the best team in the tournament. Now, the new standard is bowing out in the first or second weekend to lesser teams…again we come up short on the X’s and O’s. Now Calipari is recruiting second level talent and that shows no sign of changing anytime soon. Without the ability to coach these kids up to the top tier level, there is no reason to expect anymore titles until we get a new coach. All of you Rah Rah’s will cry and cuss, scream and shout, and offer up the most ridiculous defenses of Calipari’s track record here at UK and that doesn’t change what the rest of the country can see. We are losing to teams that we should never lose to, we are getting humiliated by a few teams we should be competitive with, and we aren’t winning national titles anymore. There is no arguing that Calipari is a good man. He has done much for Lexington. has rallied BBN into helping disaster victims everywhere. He even puts the kids best interest, as far as NBA aspirations, ahead of the University’s, but he isn’t recruiting at the level he did in the beginning and he isn’t winning national titles. This past season, we didn’t even win the SEC regular season or the tournament title. This will become the norm in the years to come and that’s why he won’t stay more than 2 to 4 more years at the most. He has been paid well and his retirement will be a nice one. But Kentucky is no longer the gold standard in college basketball. When we cease to be the winningest program and possibly get caught or even passed in national titles won…then all of you Rah Rah’s will be singing a different tune. Its a shame the University has to suffer these indignities, but that’s the price of rewarding excuses and complacency.

    1. Spoken like a true Duke fan.

    2. As soon as I saw the patron saint of slow ball’s name I knew I did not want to read any further…TUBBY WON WITH RICK’S BOYS….not his…he never did much after that…has never won a championship at any other school he has coached. I like Tubby he was a true gentle man but he was not the coach Ky needed. I am sorry to say I wanted him, didn’t think Donovan was old enough or had enough experience…boy was I wrong. SLOW BALL for old men is the way I saw it. Catmandoo1000 take your anger and go find another school to cheer for.

  9. Mike, your right about Cal choke on Wisconsin game. I really don’t think he has gotten over that.

    1. 38-1 boys, remember that. Calipari didn’t so much choke as it was the Badgers lock down defense and the shot clock violations against UK down the stretch. Plus the year before, UK had knocked the Badgers out of the tourney on a 3 point Harrison buzzer beater. That Wisc team had an ax to grind that year big time. It was also a veteran team. I don’t think we will ever see a college basketball team get closer to perfection than that UK squad. Hey it happens. I give Calipari credit for the 38 straight wins.

      1. Pup, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Andrew Harrison was the reason we lost that game to the Badgers. We are up 6 with 5 minutes to go and Andrew tries to ice the game with 5 minutes left. He was responsible for 3 straight shot clock violations and that gave the Badgers the lead. He then went into panic mode and starting forcing wild shots instead of letting Towns pound it inside. If Calipari had taken Andrew out and let Tyler Ulis finish that game, we would have been 39 -0 and would have been too much for Duke. That is just one title that Calipari has blown. But thanks to Rah Rahs like this bunch in here, Calipari gets rewarded for his failures.

        1. Dukemandoo1000 let me say again, your post is spoken like a true Duke fan. So, if you are so great, where did you play the game that would qualify you to criticize every player on UK’s team and their HOF coach? You were a star right? Never missed a shot, or failed to get a rebound, or get a double double in a highly competitive ball game where the competition brought you hell on every possession. You have never said. Did you play Div 1 basketball? Somebody that gets on a UK support site and constantly belittles UK’s players and Coaches after a good run in the NCAA has to be a troll. As a player, did you practice what you preach? Let us all of us know.

  10. If we are no longer the Gold Standard of college basketball, who is? Just curious!

    1. I am not sure there is one team that can claim that name. We could have been that I Calipari had not blown those titles where we clearly were the best team in the game. Now, there are a lot of teams that are as good or better than us. We are quickly becoming a perennial also ran.

  11. Oh, I forgot…RAH RAH RAH!!!

    1. You really need to watch your blood pressure…go away.

  12. Catmandoo, let me ask you a question how often has the cats won two titles in one decade since the Rupp days. Once and that was in the 90s with two separate coaches. So our track record isn’t good since the 50s when Rupp did it. We have long dry spells when we do win it again alone . It took almost twenty years to win it when won in 1978 and then it took another 18 years to win again in 96 and 98. Then took another 14 years to win it 2012 It just the way it is and it’s luck of how the ball bounces and how the refs are calling it to win it.

  13. Gee, 79. If that’s all it takes, lets just give the waterboy a four leaf clover and make him the coach and use all of that money we are giving Calipari to buy off the refs. You Rah Rah’s talk out of your butts and then wonder why your breath stinks.

  14. Catmandoo you got no class!!! Rah Rah Rah .

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