Kentucky head coach John Calipari had his annual behind-the-scenes profile published today, this time in GQ; this one follows Calipari around his family’s beach house and his church, and the coach even let reporter Reid Forgrave attend mass with him. This somehow led to Calipari being referred to as “the devil” throughout the piece, which, okay. You’ve read some version of this profile by this point, most likely, but this is a solid version of it.
The Wildcats coach comes off as a fairly charming, sociable guy who is simultaneously an alpha asshole dead-set on achieving his goals. This is more or less the same image he’s been crafting since debuting his one-and-done positive new image five or six years ago. In the piece, Calipari does what he normally does—he shits on Mike Krzyzewski and Duke for copping his one-and-done format and getting praised for being able to adapt; he flirts idly with NBA coaching rumors (he claims he almost took the Cavs job in 2014); and he plays up his younger asshole days while still maintaining that he’s a player-first coach that isn’t afraid to Tell It Like It Is on anything and everything. Well, almost everything—everything except for the amateurism system that’s made him rich and powerful enough to be someone who gets big glossy magazine profiles.
Calipari is situated in an interesting position given the backdrop of the current FBI investigation. He was the first coach to boast openly his sustained success with one-and-done players after the NBA and the Players Association set 19 as the new draft age limit and required a year between high school and college in their 2005 collective bargaining negotiations. When he’s questioned about his role in the NCAA’s amateurism scam, Calipari almost always replies that it’s really on the NBA and the NBAPA for crafting the rule and that he’s simply trying to make life easier for the players ready to jump straight to the NBA. Here’s how he put it with GQ:
“That’s an agreement between the players’ association and the NBA,” Calipari said. “I have nothing to do with it, have no say in it. So I’m dealing with the situation that at the end of the day is like a gap year, for a kid leaving his bedroom and his mom waking him up every day, playing on a high school team that he was the only player. He didn’t get pushed, he didn’t get challenged. Never played in front of 20,000. He’s going to go to us for a year, and we fill that gap year.”
It’s a slick twist on his familiar patter, and the artfulness of it is part of what makes Cal so damn interesting to listen to and watch. He positioned himself as the good guy in a broken system sooner than anyone else—a man who’s simply looking out for the player’s best interest, a no-bullshit winner dedicated to helping players get to the next level. He calls out the NCAA in the GQ piece—“They make decisions for bureaucracy and for their structure”—and, Forgrave writes, “took offense to the counter-argument that these young men should be gracious for a free education.” This all lines up with Calipari’s recent comments on the college basketball business—he’s very open to criticizing part of the amateurism model, but not quite ready to criticize the thing itself. He did this just two weeks ago with the name and likeness issue, per ESPN:
“It’s their name and likeness. It’s not ours, it’s theirs,” Calipari said. “They should be able to make money. Maybe the school manages it, maybe the money goes to their parents for travel. And maybe there’s a limit on what they can do, and the rest they get when they leave here. It’s all stuff that can be done easily.”
Calipari stops well short of being a revolutionary, though. It might be more accurate to think of him as a disruptor—someone who speaks in revolutionary tones, but whose actual work amounts to the successful manipulation of an imbalanced system to his direct financial gain. Popular culture and national media are happy to celebrate these sorts of innovators, in college basketball and everywhere else.
As it happens, Calipari isn’t quite a lone voice in the wilderness anymore. The Pac-12's task force joined him in calling for the end of one-and-done; although they too stopped short of calling for a full reevaluation of the amateurism model in college basketball and football. Calipari knows that the system is broken and unfair, and is willing to say it, but he stops short of advocating that four-year role players should able to pocket some of that March Madness TV money. This requires some intellectual and ethical contortions, which is part of how Calipari winds up advocating for more student loans as a solution to the one-and-done rule in the GQ story.
“If you want kids to stay in school longer, let their families take loans, the ones that have pro potential,” he told me. “Players with pro potential should be able to request a loan from the NBA. They can say no. They can say there’s a max of $50,000 for your family. Maybe that gets a kid to stay in school a year longer, because he’s like, ‘Mom, just take that.’ And now we eliminate the third party, and when the kid becomes an NBA player, he pays back the money.”
The idea is a perfect distillation of the boundary-pushing that’s brought Calipari both trouble and success. He does not want to blow up the broken system. He knows this system has made him very wealthy and has benefited his players, too. “Use the system the way it is,” he said. “Just make it better.”
“Use the system the way it is, just make it better” seems like a solution when you’re already profiting off that system, but basically only from that perspective. Calipari gets credit for being the first honest pimp, but he still does his work and his winning in a system that does not properly compensate its players, who are both the game’s labor and its product. Calipari admits in the GQ article to turning down the Cavs job; he also admits that he did so because he believed he would have been fired, just as David Blatt later was. Calipari was able to make that choice because he’s comfortable at Kentucky, and he’s comfortable there because he struck gold—by selling his program as a one-year finishing school for the NBA, he recruited some of the best players of the last generation. He’s paid $8 million in salary and more in endorsements every year; in a real sense, a NBA job would likely be a step down. He has so many reasons to want things to stay just the way they are.
But Calipari is close. He’s closer than any other major coach in college basketball because he’s willing to speak in actually meaningful sentences about the economic disparities built into college sports, and he’s sure-as-shit closer than the disgraceful athletic directors, because he can at least say out loud that part of the problem is amateurism itself. But until Calipari can admit that the current system—the one he’s mastered, the one that’s made him rich—needs to die, his legacy as the best recruiter of his generation will be overshadowed by his legacy as the man who loudly called out college basketball as the cynical business that it is and then quietly made his own cynical peace with it.