If he had been born a century earlier, the banner might well read “Barnum & Calipari Circus.” OK, Calipari & Barnum.
Kentucky’s basketball coach is a natural showman, inviting people inside the tent for the greatest show on earth, and his newest pitch is a doozy. Bearded lady? Human cannonball? High-wire walker? Child’s play compared to Calipari’s next amazing feat.
“Before I retire, I’d like to coach an undefeated team,” Calipari declared before UK Alumni Association members at a Louisville luncheon.
“Because they say it can’t be done,” Calipari explained. “Everywhere I’ve been, it’s been, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that. He’ll never do this, he’ll never do that. His team can’t do this or that.’”
The argument is a clear demonstration of a me-against-the-world mentality than can drive Kentucky’s coach. Critics charged his Memphis teams were a charade because of a poor conference, yet they came within a miracle buzzer-beater of winning an NCAA title. Many have railed against his one-and-done system at Kentucky, yet the 2012 group was the youngest to win a national championship.
His newest naysayers – whether real or contrived is really a formality in this saga – are taking aim at one of the few trophies missing from Calipari’s mantel.
“They say you can’t win them all,” Calipari mocked, clearly playing to his business dress circus goers. “There’s no way. There’s too much pressure. Well, I’ve had three teams almost do that, and before I retire, I’d like to do that.”
Calipari’s 1996 UMass team was 35-2, losing in the NCAA title game to none other than Kentucky. His 2008 Memphis club was 38-2, also losing in the championship game. Then in 2012, his Kentucky team was also 38-2 and won the coach his first national title.
Today, thanks to six McDonald’s All-Americans who make up the greatest signing class ever, the chatter is about perfection – 40-0.
“I don’t know if it’s this team,” Calipari said. “But I will say this, when you’re chasing something and you’re saying game to game is important – because if you’re going to go 40-0 or compete or try, then Austin Peay is just as important as North Carolina – then all the sudden you do stay in the moment.
“You’ve got no choice,” he continued. “You have to practice in the moment. You have to stay in the moment. You can’t worry about what’s ahead and you can’t worry about what’s behind. You just keeping trying to get better and better.”
Ever the ringmaster, Calipari not only had the 40-0 show on display he was simultaneously operating two smaller acts as part of his three-ring circus under the big top.
To his left, the ever-popular “Everybody’s Super Bowl.” To his right, the time honored “Shared Sacrifice.”
“Our third game is against Michigan State,” Calipari began. “It’s going to be hard. They’re already a veteran team, they’ve already made comments that their practices are about beating Kentucky, but I say this to you: If I ask my team, ‘When do we play Florida?’ They’re not going to know. North Carolina? They don’t know. You think they know when we’re playing Louisville? They don’t know. Now, does everyone on our schedule know when they’re playing Kentucky? Oh, they know. That’s in their locker. That’s on their bedroom ceiling.”
To complete a 40-0 season, Kentucky would have to beat the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina, Louisville, Baylor, Tennessee and Florida. And that doesn’t include eight SEC road games or any postseason tournaments.
“You have to deal with that. That’s part of being at Kentucky,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Not only do they want to beat Kentucky, they want to beat you as an individual player. You know why? They wanted that scholarship you got and they want to prove they are better than you. Not just that their team is better than Kentucky.’
“That’s the challenge we have,” Calipari barked to the audience. “But would you want it any other way? I don’t. Bring it. Let’s go.”
To achieve perfection, Calipari must also find a way to get a roster containing the No. 1 rated point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center to put egos aside as play as one unit.
“Will you worry about your teammates more than yourself?” Calipari asked. “If they do that, the game’s easy. You’re worrying about each other instead of yourself. You’re not worried about numbers, minutes and all that. Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to teach.”
Intoxicating to imaging perfection, is it not? Tantalizing to consider being front and center for a season of historic proportions? So grab your funnel cake and corn dogs because ...
“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!”