LEXINGTON, Ky. — On April 4, 2015, John Calipari was the king of college basketball. He’d brought Kentucky to the Final Four for the fourth time in five years, this time with an unprecedented 38-0 record and a shot at not only his second national championship but also one of the greatest seasons of all time.
On April 5, 2015 in Indianapolis, his Wildcats led Wisconsin by four points with five minutes to go, seemingly destined for a title-game collision with Duke and nemesis Mike Krzyzewski. That is, until Calipari effectively deflated the basketball, ordering a team with seven eventual NBA draft picks to play stall ball. “I don’t like this. It ended up in a bad shot last time,” legendary broadcaster Bill Raftery told the television audience, groaning as he watched plodding possessions that mostly ended in hurried, off-balance heaves. Calipari buried his face in his hands as the dream season disintegrated.
The next day, news broke that Calipari was voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, so he stayed in Indianapolis to accept awkward congratulations. He sat before reporters, still shell-shocked from the night before, fielding alternating questions about his career’s most devastating loss and most prestigious honor. It was as if he’d slipped and fallen off Kilimanjaro just shy of the summit, only to somehow wake up atop Everest. “I feel phony,” he said that day.
Kentucky and its coach have never quite been the same since.
More than eight years later, Calipari and the Wildcats have not been back to a Final Four. They’ve won one NCAA Tournament game in the last three years. The mountaintop has faded from view, and the question now is whether a 64-year-old Calipari can climb again or if he’ll continue the descent in his 15th season in Lexington. The slide was subtle enough at first — Kentucky was one shot away from returning to the Final Four in 2017 and 2019, and won the Southeastern Conference by three games in 2020 before COVID-19 canceled the postseason — but the decline began in those waning moments against Wisconsin.
“I really believe that game broke him,” said one former support staff member, who, along with four others, requested anonymity to protect their relationship with Calipari.
“That year took a lot out of him,” said another former staffer. “It was such a unique opportunity to do something that had never been done, and to lose it all in the national semifinals … The next year, the vibes were entirely different.”
The Athletic spoke to former Kentucky assistant coaches and support staffers, as well as basketball agents and NBA front-office personnel, about why the Wildcats have fallen and whether Calipari can recapture the magic. Several themes emerged:
• Calipari’s patience steadily shrank in recent years, which led to a shorter fuse with players (and some staff) and a less detailed approach to preparation. “He used to be a really good teacher,” a third former staffer said, “but then he would just speed through practice.”
• He became less innovative. Gripping the wheel too tightly in that 2015 Final Four loss, incredibly, did not convince him to unleash all that talent. Instead, he clamped down harder. “We used to put in real offense, run real stuff,” the second former staffer said. Calipari famously adopted and popularized the dribble-drive motion offense, which empowered his five-star guards to make plays. But in recent years? “He stopped letting his guys go,” the staffer said.
• As Calipari dug-in stylistically, even publicly scoffing at the 3-point revolution that has overtaken basketball at every level, he also turned cantankerous, seeking out slights and holding grudges. He picked fights with Kentucky’s athletic director, with the biggest radio personality in the state, and with the Wildcats’ wildly popular football coach — and he obsessed over those feuds. “He’s at his best when his back is against the wall or he has somebody to prove wrong,” said a fourth former staffer, “but there’s a delicate balance there, and he started to lose focus.”
Most prominently, those who spoke to The Athletic cite significant turnover on Calipari’s staff as an ailment that has plagued the program. Calipari has signed an unmatched 58 five-star recruits, had 47 NBA draft picks, including 35 first-rounders, 23 lottery picks and had three players taken No. 1 overall since his arrival in Lexington in 2009. But key personnel losses shattered the support system that channeled the coach’s best traits and challenged his worst ideas.
Over the past three years, especially, that allowed a crack in the foundation to become a chasm.
NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns once called Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne “the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.” Former lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein said: “Kenny is the backbone. He keeps that sh– tight.” Lakers All-Star Anthony Davis predicted in the summer of 2019 that the Wildcats would “definitely take a hit if (Payne) leaves.” After nearly a decade of recruiting, developing and bonding with players, Payne left Lexington in August 2020 for an assistant coaching job with the New York Knicks; he is now head coach of rival Louisville.
DeWayne Peevy, a longtime Calipari consigliere who’d risen to deputy athletic director, left that same month to become athletic director at DePaul. Peevy’s job, in part, was to manage a steady stream of Calipari’s big ideas. He listened, debated, filtered, vetted and, when necessary, vetoed. Whenever ideas actually got through to AD Mitch Barnhart, Peevy would joke, “You don’t realize the 78 things I got rid of before I came with these two.” With that buffer in place, Calipari was free to dream wildly and speak freely. “I never focused on telling him no,” Peevy said in 2020. “I really just focused on getting him to understand that his vision had to match the department’s vision. I think he respected that. There was a trust level there.”
During that 38-1 season in 2015, the New York Times profiled then-assistant John Robic, whom the headline declared was “happy to sweat the small stuff for Kentucky.” Robic, who’d also been a trusted Calipari adviser at Massachusetts and Memphis, was the brains behind pregame preparations. His film study was exhaustive, his scouting reports thorough and his game plans clear-eyed. “He’s Cal’s right-hand man,” former No. 1 pick John Wall told the Times. “Robes does the other things – allows Cal to be as efficient as he wants.” Calipari’s mentor, Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, said then that Robic “basically allows John to do his job.”
A year later, Calipari moved Robic into an off-court role, and in April 2021, off the basketball staff. Neither Robic nor Calipari, who both declined to comment for this story, have publicly discussed what led to their falling out.
“That is a huge one,” said the second former staffer. “Robic was the scout. He was very detailed, just really knew his stuff. He was one of those guys Cal leaned on in a lot of ways, for a lot of things, that I think maybe after 30 years together, you just kind of take for granted – and when they’re gone, there’s a massive void there.”
The 2016-17 team, led by De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, was “the last fun team to watch at Kentucky,” said the third former staffer. After that season, Calipari “became so tight with the reins. We got away from the dribble-drive and he started trying to over-coach. He tried to under-teach and over-coach, and that’s a bad combination.”
Calipari’s infamous Two Circle play, often used as a stall tactic, “became our go-to offense,” the second former staffer said. Some European teams run versions of a Circle offense, but with pace and creative wrinkles. Calipari’s version? It was a “meat grinder,” said the third former staffer. “We were running good offense against Wisconsin, went to Two Circle and lost it.”
Last season, a team featuring three former five-star recruits, several coveted transfers and reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe got outclassed by Tom Izzo and Michigan State, Mark Few and Gonzaga, Mick Cronin and UCLA and even SEC newcomer Dennis Gates and Missouri before the new year. At that time, The Athletic spoke to several opposing coaches about what seemed to be the problem.
“I’m not sure what Cal wants. It’s like there’s an identity crisis,” said one.
“Their offense is archaic,” said another. “It’s gotta be the same sh– he was running with the New Jersey Nets.”
In addition to Robic, Payne and Peevy, four more assistants and several other support staffers have left in the last three years. Joel Justus, who helped UK land Adebayo and develop Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, went to Arizona State, then N.C. State. Tony Barbee, who played for Calipari at UMass, worked for him at three schools and was the brains behind the Wildcats’ defense, took the head-coaching job at Central Michigan. Jai Lucas, who is considered one of the country’s top young coaches, bolted for Duke after two years in Lexington. KT Turner took the UT Arlington head-coaching job after one season.
Additionally, longtime media relations director and Calipari confidante Eric Lindsey took a PR job outside of sports during the 2021-22 season. Longtime assistant video coordinator Andrew Ortelli, who helped fill the scouting void when Robic exited, took a promotion at Temple this summer. TJ Beisner, who organized Kentucky’s name, image and likeness efforts and was another trusted sounding board for Calipari, took a similar job at North Carolina last month.
“He doesn’t have anyone around him who understands how he thinks now,” said a fifth former staffer. “He’s a genius. He really is. But like any kind of creative person, you have to know how to channel it, and I just don’t think he has that anymore.”
In a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile of Bob Knight headlined “The Rabbit Hunter,” writer Frank Deford described how the infamous Indiana coach struggled to practice what he preached to his players: Don’t go chasing rabbits or the elephants will kill you. Deford wrote: But the coach doesn’t listen to himself. He’s always chasing after the incidental.
In recent years, a cold war with his boss, Barnhart, has become one of Calipari’s rabbits. The bombastic coach and pragmatic AD differ dramatically in personality and disagree about what constitutes sufficient university support for the winningest program in college basketball history. Their relationship has become strained since Peevy left, and it came to a boiling point in the summer of 2022, when Calipari publicly demanded a new practice facility — which Barnhart deems unnecessary — and inadvertently picked a fight with football coach Mark Stoops by calling Kentucky “a basketball school.”
A surreal news conference followed, in which Stoops and Barnhart effectively told Calipari to zip it. To no one’s surprise, he did not take that well. Recently, Calipari has adopted a catch phrase repeated often to the media: “Administrations win championships.” It’s always delivered in the context of explaining that SEC basketball is better now because more schools are committed to the sport the way Kentucky always has been.
“DeWayne worked as a go-between that allowed Cal and Mitch to have the type of relationship they probably wanted from the very start: Look, we’re not the same people, not similar personalities, but we need each other,” said the fourth former staffer. “They didn’t need to deal with each other every day because he had an intermediary in DeWayne. But there was never any thought to what happens when DeWayne leaves.”
Calipari thrives when he’s left alone to recruit talent, mold star-studded rosters into unselfish teams and promote the brand like a cocksure carnival barker. But he needs trappers around him to keep the rabbits out of sight. With fewer of those in the building, Calipari seems to have taken his eyes off the prize. In addition to his rift with Barnhart, he spent the better part of two years not-so-subtly beefing with radio host Matt Jones, obsessing over what he believed was overly harsh criticism.
“There’s been times the team wasn’t performing well and he was focused on saying some sh– or putting out something to get back at Matt Jones,” said the fourth former staffer.
Chasing those rabbits has taken a toll.
Last season, he frequently referenced how tired he was. Pregame news conferences, where he once delivered bold proclamations, not-so-humble brags or not-so-subtle jabs, became almost nonexistent. He zipped through postgame news conferences. He began hand-picking who got to ask him a question after games — and tried to avoid follow-up questions.
After a home loss to Vanderbilt on March 1, Calipari spoke for just five minutes on his postgame radio show, where hundreds of fans waited in Rupp Arena as he joined the host courtside. He made an abrupt exit, explaining, “As you can tell, I am beat down right now. I’m tired. This has been a tough run.” Assistant coach Orlando Antigua took over the show.
“He’s just worn out,” said the second former staffer. “He ain’t 54 anymore. He’s 64.”
This summer, Calipari reunited with Chuck Martin, who was with him at Memphis when the Tigers made three straight Elite Eights and played for a national title. He brought in John Welch, an old friend with two decades of NBA coaching experience and a revered player development guru. Calipari also hired a video coordinator with NBA experience who also worked at San Diego State.
Calipari said Martin is “going to be tremendous for us” and has “already had an impact on our recruiting.” Kentucky just landed its first five-star recruit in the 2024 class. Welch “helped me put in the dribble-drive with Vance Walberg when I was at Memphis,” said Calipari, who would like to get back to those roots this season with a guard-heavy roster. “He’s a guy that loves to teach.”
Martin and Welch are “more like Cal’s previous staffs,” said the fifth former staffer. “They’re more, ‘We’re here to win games. What do you need from us, Coach?’”
Calipari’s first need is always going to be talent. He has that this season, after signing an old-school recruiting class that ranks No. 1 nationally, including five-stars Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham. He went against his nature the last two years, trying to win with transfer-heavy rosters and veteran teams, but now Calipari has leaned back into the youth movement that made him famous. This roster features eight freshmen and only two seniors.
“If you ask me talent or experience, I’m taking talent, and the talent usually figures it out,” Calipari said at media day last week. “Look, I’m not changing. I’m going to recruit the best freshman player that I can get. Now, you could say, ‘It’s not going to work anymore!’ Well, we’ll see.”
Everything we’ve seen from these Wildcats thus far, from a four-game exhibition romp in Canada to a rollicking series of preseason highlights, suggests Calipari is going to play a more modern brand of basketball. That could be purely out of necessity, as none of the Wildcats’ three 7-footers has been available, but the coach appears to be getting comfortable playing with pace and space, five-out and firing away from deep.
The college basketball world remains skeptical. Kentucky has its lowest preseason ranking ever under Calipari – 16th – and is picked to finish fourth in the SEC.
Still, maybe Calipari, at this late stage, can lead a revival.
Just last summer, he ranted to the program’s local television partner about how important it was to make Big Blue Madness, the famous preseason basketball extravaganza and UK’s premier recruiting event of the year, great again. Once a must-see spectacle, Madness had become stale. “You can say, ‘It’s not that big a deal.’ It could (impress) one player and that one player can help you win a national title,” Calipari told WLEX-TV. “That John Wall stuff and that Madness got us Anthony Davis. You gotta be talking about Madness for a month or we didn’t do our job. It’s unacceptable.”
So what did Calipari and Kentucky deliver for Madness in 2023? The least-exciting event to date. There was no viral dance like Wall’s in 2009, no Drake in the layup line like 2014 — or Drake on the video board introducing Calipari in 2015, or Drake wearing a “Kentucky Dad” hoodie on the bench in 2017 — no Michael Buffer like 2016 or even Bruce Buffer like 2019. There were no braggadocious lines like Calipari’s oft-repeated, “We do more than move the needle; we are the needle” from 2011.
This year, former star DeMarcus Cousins introduced Calipari — “The GOAT. Y’all better put some respect on his name” — and an increasingly gray-headed man ambled onto the stage, not in one of his signature Italian suits, but in a UK pullover and jeans. Calipari addressed the crowd for less than a minute. The only shorter Madness appearance by him was in 2014, alongside Drake, when he simply said, “Enough talking, let’s ball,” and literally dropped the microphone.
This was not that. “Let’s watch these guys play and enjoy it,” Calipari said, with minimal enthusiasm, “and let’s get on with this.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Dylan Buell, Andy Lyons, Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)