Bluegrass Madness --commentary

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Calipari is getting a lot more than just a talented team

By Mike Forster

  So, the University of Kentucky has signed John Calipari to lead its basketball program.

Calipari exits Memphis, a school he led to the final game of last year’s NCAA tournament.

I hope he understands what he’s getting himself into.

Along with a gifted bunch of athletes, a fat contract and world class facilities, Calipari also inherits a fan base that makes manic actor/comedian Robin Williams seem deliberate by comparison.

Wildcat hoops fans revel in the art of fanaticism the way Michelangelo worked in marble or Monet in oils.

You think that folks around these parts are nuts over Virginia Tech football?

Ha!  They are but pikers compared to the Kentucky basketball fans.

I lived for five years in Louisville, Ky.  It is a lovely city with a beautiful race track (no, you NASCAR nuts, not THAT kind of track).

I found many enjoyable diversions during my time in the Bluegrass State.

What I learned early on, however, was to avoid any hint of a distaste for Kentucky basketball.

I recall, having arrived in Kentucky just a few weeks prior, sitting down for a meeting at my new place of work.

The usual pre-meeting chit-chat was taking place.  I happened to strike up a dialogue with a couple of my peers, and the talk turned to the topic of basketball.

I casually mentioned that I thought the Big Ten was the strongest basketball conference in the country.

Then and there, one of the fellows challenged me to step outside and account for this insult I had hurled at the entire state of Kentucky and the SEC.

I’m fairly certain that, if dueling were still legal, we’d have been settling it with pistols at 10 paces.

Here’s another example.  There was a sports talk radio station on the Louisville AM dial.  I recall listening to it in September. 

Each and every caller into the host had a question or statement that revolved around Kentucky basketball.  Nothing about the upcoming baseball playoffs.  Nothing about college or pro football, both of which were kicking into gear.

It was Kentucky basketball, all the time.  And, if you didn’t like it, well, mister, you just shut your pie-hole.

I developed a good friendship with a hard-core Kentucky fan.  He had me over to watch a couple of the Wildcats’ games on the tube.

The experience was the same, each and every time.

Jimmy would sit, transfixed.  Every time the other team shot or Kentucky was clearing the backcourt, he would yell, “C’mon.....CATS!”

Nothing else in the world existed.  I could have been stealing his silverware and spray-painting graffiti on his dog.  He’d not have noticed.

Now, in my friend’s defense, the Kentucky program has been one of the handful of “royalty” programs in the land.

I’d say, along with UCLA, Kansas, UNC and Duke, Kentucky is among the top five programs, historically.

Lately, though, the Cats have gotten some fingers poked in their eye.

First, Tubby Smith left the top slot, heading north to take over at Minnesota.

My guess is that Tubby’s departure had more to do with getting peace of mind than it did with anything else.

At Minnesota, not only does basketball take a back seat to football, it even takes a back seat to hockey.

Whereas, in Kentucky, he was on the hotseat every day of the year, at Minnesota he isn’t on the hot seat at all, even in the winter.

Another poke in the eye came courtesy of a beloved former coach.  During Tubby’s reign, Kentucky fans saw former Cat coach Rick Pitino return to the state.  Only he didn’t return to lead Kentucky again.  No, Pitino took over at the hated University of Louisville.

It would be as if Frank Beamer left Virginia Tech, went to the NFL for a few seasons and then signed on at UVa.

Or, more accurately, it would be as if Ulysses S. Grant decided, after the war, to become governor of Virginia.


After Tubby left, Kentucky’s administration selected Billy Gillispie to be its head coach.

Gillispie, who had left Texas A&M, was named SEC Coach of the Year after his first season at Kentucky.

Following his second season, he was canned after posting a 22-14 record.  Those 14 losses were the second-most by a Kentucky team in its history.

You don’t get second chances in the Bluegrass.

Fortunately, for Calipari, he is a proven talent, and that should carry him for a while.

I’d say, it should carry him until his first loss of the new season.