One big (un)happy family? John Calipari's odd power play a defeat for all
A big blue bombshell dropped Thursday afternoon. In a column for The Athletic, Kyle Tucker quoted UK hoops coach John Calipari in a bit of a jaw-dropping comment:
"This is a basketball school. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls. But this is a basketball school."
John Calipari wants his practice facility ASAP.https://t.co/0zlHJxlXmT
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) August 11, 2022
Yes, the context was Calipari’s attempt to induce UK’s athletic department to double down in the never ending arms race for bigger and better facilities. But the sentiment … well, it turned heads. Like Mark Stoops’.
— Mark Stoops (@UKCoachStoops) August 11, 2022
And from there, it was a Twitter free-for-all. Current athletes and coaches, past athletes and coaches, media personnel, everybody except Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear had a hot take to drop in this surprising and oddly-timed debate. Some background is probably in order to help contextualize this particular battle.
The high point of Kentucky’s relatively meager football history was the tenure of Paul “Bear” Bryant in Lexington. Kentucky’s coach from 1946 to 1953, Bryant led Kentucky to 60 wins, 3 bowl wins, and an 11-1 season in 1950, which is probably Kentucky’s best season ever. He left Lexington for Texas A&M for uncertain reasons. Many believed then — and believe now — that Bryant was forced out in a power play by Kentucky hoops coach Adolph Rupp, who won 3 NCAA Tournament titles during Bryant’s time at UK.
Between Bryant’s departure after the 1953 season and the arrival of Mark Stoops in 2013, Kentucky won 10 games exactly once — a 10-1 season in 1977. Kentucky split an SEC football title once, in 1976. But for much of the time, Kentucky football struggled through 4-7 type seasons as pundits chortled at how football was simply a warm-up activity for Kentucky’s fan base to get down to basketball business.
Or course, Stoops has changed that narrative. Twice in the past 4 seasons, he led Kentucky to 10-win seasons and Citrus Bowl victories. Now the second-longest tenured head coach in the SEC, Stoops opens the 2022 season 1 win behind Bryant’s UK victory record, and having won 4 consecutive bowl games.
But Calipari has also changed that narrative. After 4 Final Four appearances in his first 6 seasons in Lexington, including a 2012 NCAA Tournament title, Coach Cal’s mojo has gone missing. Kentucky’s 9-16 season in 2020-21 was the team’s first losing record since Eddie Sutton’s 13-19 season in 1988-89 (which — coupled with NCAA violations — got Sutton fired). A 26-7 regular season in 2021-22 seemed to have UK back on track, but the No. 2 seed Wildcats fell to No. 15 seed St. Peter’s in a massive NCAA Tournament upset.
All of which made Calipari’s rant the more surprising. It would be one thing for the 2012 edition of Calipari — fresh, sparkling championship ring in hand — to complain about inferior facilities and throw shade at UK football. But the recent success — for once — is on football’s side of the table.
Of course, Calipari isn’t wrong in a historical sense. Kentucky has been a basketball school. The rafters full of banners in Rupp Arena tell the story. But under Mitch Barnhart’s tutelage, the Wildcats have shown impressive results in rifle, track, women’s basketball, and yes, even football. And the point where Calipari threw shade at Stoops and company was — simply put — wrong.
His comments seem to suggest first that 10 wins a bowl victory is a ceiling for Stoops. Yes, it’s a level that UK hasn’t reached often. But having pulled the feat twice in 4 years, Stoops has the Wildcats looking at bigger goals — goals like those that the Calipari-labeled football schools of Alabama and Georgia pull off. The comments also seem to suggest that basketball is big business at UK, while football, like all the other sports, is just a welcome distraction between National Signing Day and Big Blue Madness.
For his part, Stoops’s return fire had an interesting subtext. Pointing out the 4 consecutive bowl victories felt like a passive-aggressive way of noting the St. Peter’s upset of the basketball Cats last March, and perhaps the horrifying season of the previous year.
But the real loser here is, frankly, everybody.
The rest of the SEC's football coaches have got to love John Calipari publicly saying Kentucky is a basketball school
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) August 11, 2022
Completely out of the blue question but has the Kentucky football team ever lost to St.Peters? ?
— Max Duffy (@Max__Duffy) August 11, 2022
Calipari’s (at best) ill-conceived comments (and those of his Twitter defenders) remind football recruits that Kentucky’s historical toehold in the league has been in basketball, and that even those nice little 10-win seasons and bowl victories don’t change that for a certain portion of the UK fan base. They suggested an implicit ceiling for the football team and contrasted Stoops’ squad from “real” football schools like Alabama and Georgia. It certainly trivializes the turn-around Stoops has engineered in Lexington.
Stoops’ response (and the social media support that followed) reminds basketball fans that the past 2 basketball years have been massive disappointments and that Stoops has led Kentucky football to 6 consecutive bowl appearances since Calipari’s last Final Four appearance. While Calipari has struggled with 5-star recruits, Stoops has built 2-star and 3-star recruits into nationally competitive teams. It also reminds us that the basketball coach took to the media to complain about facilities (rather than privately raise the issue with the Athletic Director) and “threatened” to raise funds himself as he’s bitter about football potentially obtaining an indoor practice facility in the meanwhile.
The whole situation starts to feel a little bit like Rupp and Bryant revisited, except for a couple of things. One is that Calipari — if he ever was — isn’t looking much like Rupp circa 1953 in terms of title wins. The other is that Stoops has Kentucky football on better footing than it’s been since Bryant. So if everybody loses in Thursday’s odd power play from Calipari, Calipari has the potential of ending up as the ultimate loser in the whole odd affair.