- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Kentucky made the perfect hire, and the right one to resuscitate a program that had slipped from the elite.
John Calipari is a polarizing figure. He may have more detractors than fans. But he wins, wins big, and wins with star players.
He also is the most extroverted, opinionated, confident coach in the business today. Nothing about the passionate and demanding Kentucky fan base will faze Calipari. The Kentucky media won't scare him. He will embrace and challenge them all.
Make no mistake, Kentucky wasn't irrelevant under Billy Gillispie. The Wildcats matter as much when they're not winning at the expected level as when they compete for national championships. Kentucky rates on television and drives traffic on the Internet. That's why home losses to Gardner-Webb, VMI and San Diego as well as multiple home losses in the SEC drew plenty of discussion over the past two seasons.
Kentucky is too valuable a program, not only to the Commonwealth but to the sport, to be dismissed.
Calipari will thrive in this new role. He is one of those people who loves chaos and survives storm after storm. His life is hardly normal if he's not dealing with some sort of issue. Few folks can compartmentalize as well as Calipari.
Questioning how he recruits and who he uses as a conduit to players is fair game. But you have to know who fits at a particular school. Not everyone would work at Kentucky. The Wildcats don't do vanilla. They need someone who is going to add spice to Lexington. This is an all-day, every-day gig.
Florida's Billy Donovan would have worked well because he understands Kentucky. He recruits as well as Calipari and has won more (two national titles to Calipari's none). But Donovan wouldn't have relished the constant attention. One of the reasons he didn't go to Kentucky after the 2007 title was because he loved his life in Gainesville. Uprooting his family to Lexington would have meant a major shift and the loss of relative anonymity in football-crazy Gainesville.
Calipari won't care. His attention span is constantly shifting from one topic to another. Eat dinner with him and he'll likely interrupt the meal to call multiple coaching friends for a few quick words (trust me, I've seen it). He answers his phone wherever he is and is constantly looking for the next recruit, another way to improve his program.
Memphis had to look for ways to be relevant from January to March in Conference USA. Calipari challenged the television partners for games in the middle of the conference season. He was always willing to do whatever it would take to get his team on television, even starting a game at 11 p.m. local time this past season to get on national TV. He doesn't shy away from gimmicks, but he's hardly had them backfire.
Coaching isn't the issue here. Just look at the record. He was a grinder at UMass and won at an elite level, taking the Minutemen to the No. 1 ranking for a time and all the way to the 1996 Final Four (even though it was eventually vacated due to the Marcus Camby agent flap).
And Calipari made the Tigers the team in the city. Memphis is the story -- not that pro team called the Grizzlies. How many college basketball teams dwarf the NBA in the same city?
What happened once Calipari left UMass? The Minutemen have struggled to stay atop the A-10 consistently, let alone remain relevant in the national picture. Memphis may not be headed for a similar fate since there is money, corporate sponsorship and a passionate fan base willing to fill up FedEx Forum. But they'll never duplicate Cal. No one can.
And that's why Kentucky had to have him -- to hit the proverbial home run. The Wildcats could have played it safe with former player and current Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. That would have placated some. But Ford doesn't possess the lighting-rod personality that UK needs right now. Kentucky basketball had to have a shock to get it pumping again. Calipari delivered the jolt as soon as he said yes.
The pressure was on Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. He couldn't be turned down again after Donovan said no for a second time.
The money is obscene, but as Calipari told Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, the reason for leaving a good thing in Memphis was simply this: "It's Kentucky.''
Memphis won enough to be held in the same regard with the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and UCLA -- but the Tigers were also looked at as an outsider. By comparison, Kentucky is the ultimate insider school in the sport.
The bottom line? Calipari thrived in the former and he'll thrive in the latter. Expect Kentucky to be a constant in any discussion about elite programs in college basketball.
And we're not just talking from a historical standpoint here. We're talking soon very soon.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Now that John Calipari is coaching at Rupp Arena, expect Kentucky to be a constant in any discussion about elite programs in the sport.