If there were a bracket for most polarizing coaches in modern-day college basketball, Kentucky’s John Calipari would undoubtedly be a No. 1 seed. From his days at the University of Massachusetts (where he built a national power from scratch) to Memphis (where he took the Tigers to the 2008 national championship game) to Kentucky (where last year he guided the Wildcats to the national title), Calipari’s on-court success has been matched only by the off-court speculation that perpetually swirls around his programs.
It’s no wonder, then, that Calipari has forged a tight bond with legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, whose name is often preceded by the word “controversial.” Calipari believes that when the new class for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is announced April 8, Tarkanian should be at the top of the list. Which is why he was more than willing to pick up the phone and talk Shark last week while driving through the hills of Kentucky.
How did you grow so fond of Tarkanian?
He’s one of those guys who would watch basketball all day, and if he liked how someone’s team was playing, he’d call you [later]: “Look, I’m watching your team, and I just want to tell you …” That’s how he was. Even now, when he watches a game—and he hasn’t been up to it here in the last six months or so—but last year he’d just call me and tell me what he thought. He’s a basketball Benny. That’s what he does, and that’s why I’ve respected him.
When college basketball coaching legends are talked about today, you hear the names Dean Smith, John Wooden and John Thompson. But you rarely hear the name Jerry Tarkanian. Why is that?
I don’t know. They put white hats on some guys and black hats on other guys. The only thing Tark didn’t have back then was the social media [platform] to defend himself. [These days], when the media tries to paint you [in a bad light], you have an opportunity to let people see you, and you’re an open book: “Here’s who I am. You may not like me. But this is who I am—not what he says I am; here’s what I am.”
And here’s the other thing: He did stuff in places where it wasn’t supposed to be done. The schools that he jumped over—North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, they’ve always been up there. But when you’re taking over places where they’ve never won and all of a sudden you’re in the Top 20 or Top 15 or Top 10 … people get mad. You just don’t have people saying, “Yeah, he outworked me, he outcoached me, he got his guys playing better”—that’s not what’s said.
What’s the attitude toward Tark in the coaching community, especially among guys at your elite level?
I think we all respect him. We respect what he’s done, we respect the adversities he had. He was the initial guy who built a program so strong and so big that it became hard to beat. … You know, we all looked at him and said, “His man-to-man defense [is incredible],” but he made his mark playing zone. And he did it in midseason; he said, “I’m going to change it, and we’re going to play zone,” and all of a sudden he became the best zone coach in the country. So you think, “Well, he’s just got great players and he’s recruited this and all of a sudden he got them to play hard”—no! No! He spent way more time on defense than offense. His defense fed his offense.
Looking back, did Tark and UNLV pave the way for small schools such as Butler and VCU to make Final Four runs?
He [showed] all of us that you could be at Temple and be No. 1 in the country. You could be at UMass and be No. 1 in the country. You could be at St. Joe’s and be No. 1 in the country. You didn’t have to be North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, UCLA.
I looked at Temple when I was at UMass and said, “If Temple is in our league and they can be No. 1 in the country, why can’t we? We’re in the same league!” Well, [former Temple coach] John Chaney probably looked at it and said, “Hey, if UNLV can do this and it’s an urban campus, why can’t I at Temple?”
You know, our profession has become one where guys don’t want to risk what they have. They don’t want to step out of their own skin and say, “I’m gonna make a run at this!” Well, Tark wasn’t afraid to leave Long Beach State and go to Vegas. Think about it now: When he was at Long Beach, they had it going—he didn’t need to leave. Yet he looked at Vegas and said, “I can take that even farther.”
How much sympathy do you have knowing how frequently Tark had to deal with both accusations and innuendo?
The coaches, we’ve done this to ourselves. If you lose a player it’s either I couldn’t get him in academically [because] he’s a dummy, or [another coach] did something to get him—they cheated, they paid, they did something. Instead of just saying, “Look, the kid would rather play for Tark or rather play for this guy than you. What’s the problem?”
Which of Tark’s qualities do you most admire?
He proved that you could go get a superior athlete, a terrific player who’s a good person. And that was the one thing that bothered me more than anything: I’ve met almost all of his players, I’m guessing 80 to 90 percent. Any player from UNLV that I’ve met, they’re great guys. … His players loved him. He challenged them, because you have to; you have to make them do stuff they don’t want to do, and it’s extremely hard and they’re going to fight you. Yet when they left, they said, “I love Tark.” It’s amazing.
Is that his legacy?
Our legacies will be told 50 years from now. Right now, there’s too much emotion, too much angst, we’re too close to it. As time goes by, you start looking at results and what the players that he coached did. People will look back [at Tark] and say, “What in the world? This guy was ridiculous!”
He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. … Look at what he’s done for basketball. Look at what he’s done for young people. Look at the relationships he has with his former players—they love him. And you say, “Was he good for the game? Was he good for the schools where he coached? Was he good for coaching?” Come on!