NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 02: Head coach John Calipari celebrates as he prepares to cut down the net after the Wildcats defeat the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59 in the National Championship Game of the 2012 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on April 2, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Riding a wave of near-unparalleled success, John Calipari has become the ultimate larger than life figure in the state of Kentucky.
This is the offseason John Calipari has spent his entire life waiting for.
For 23 seasons, Coach Cal has consistently done things the way everyone said he couldn't. Or at least the way he shouldn't.
His contentious attitude at UMass quickly drew the ire of other head coaches in the region, most memorably Temple's John Chaney, who threatened to kill Calipari during a postgame press conference in 1994. Then there was an ill-advised jump to the NBA, where he was unsuccessful both on and off the court. His return to college has been characterized largely by the controversy surrounding his willingness to rely on players who spend just one season in college before turning professional. Then, most infamously, there are his 1996 and 2008 Final Four banners, which have been taken down at UMass and Memphis, respectively, after the discovery of NCAA violations.
So where has all of this left Calipari? As an untouchable God in Lexington coming off of his first national championship as head coach of arguably the top program in college basketball, naturally.
If his critics are to be believed, this is a curious case of absolute corruption preceding absolute power.
The first part is up for debate, but Calipari's unquestionable larger than life status in the Bluegrass State has been on full display since final buzzer sounded in New Orleans on the first Monday in April.
Kentucky basketball fans are among the most passionate (which, depending on the audience, may or may not be a euphemism) in all of sports. A large chunk of that passion stems from UK's vaunted history. Stop a random man or woman wearing blue in Eastern Kentucky and chances are strong that they can tell you how many national championships the Wildcats have won, the number of Final Four banners from the rafters hanging inside of Rupp Arena, and how President Kyle Macy would have flawlessly solved the American healthcare crisis.
This is a fan base that once flooded Bob McKillop with hate mail until he issued a public apology after an obscure radio interview was uncovered where the Davidson coach made a passing remark about UK not being on par with North Carolina and Duke The fact that UK, at the time, was not on par with North Carolina or Duke was inconsequential. If you take a shot at Kentucky basketball, you're in trouble. If you take a shot at Kentucky basketball's history, your life is going to be made a living hell.
This being the climate in Lexington, you wouldn't expect to read the following on the website of the program's current front man.
Big Blue Nation, it's time we learn and come to grips with the fact that we are not a traditional program. We haven't been one for the last three years, and going forward, this will continue to be a nontraditional program.
The 25-year-old model doesn't work anymore. It is done and blown up. We are going by our own model now: the gold standard. Everyone has to accept that.
So far this offseason, Kentucky has ended its series with regional rival Indiana, whom the team has played at least once in every season since 1969. The Wildcats ended their series with fellow national powerhouse North Carolina, whom they'd played every season for the past 12. Most recently, UK announced that this season, the Wildcats won't be playing a game inside Louisville's Freedom Hall for the first time since 1958.
Tradition is sacred at Kentucky. Unless you're successful enough to create your own.
In three seasons at UK, Calipari has produced two No. 1 seeds, two Final Four appearances and 13 NCAA Tournament wins. He's sent 15 players off to the NBA, seen 11 of them selected in the draft's first round, lost a total of zero home games and brought back the program's eighth national championship.
Quid pro quo.
For Kentucky fans, the price of Calpari's success is the familiarity of the program so many of them grew up with. No more four-year contributors, no more border war with the Hoosiers and no more game to appease the palate of the oft-tortured Wildcat fans in Louisville. And that seems to be alright with Big Blue Nation.
These are Calipari's Cats, and this is Calipari's Kentucky. At least until he stops winning.