Is Coach Cal to Kentucky the Right Move?

  • Hoophead
  • Robert Karpeles
  • April 2, 2009, 11:23 AM

My second grade history teacher once told me that, in order to predict the future, we must look at the past.

While ex-Memphis Tigers basketball coach John Calipari is banking on the notion that the grass is greener on the other side, no one can know for sure if he made the right choice by leaving for Kentucky. Still, we can try and predict if the gamble worked out by examining the decisions of coaches who have made similar moves from one elite program to another.

Roy Williams, Kansas to North Carolina
Williams grew up in North Carolina, played junior varsity basketball at UNC, and was an assistant coach for the great Dean Smith for nearly 10 years. So it was no wonder that after coaching the Kansas Jayhawks for nearly 15 years and failing to win a national championship (including a three-point loss to Syracuse in the 2003 national title game), Williams finally left Kansas for his hometown Tar Heels.

In his second year coaching UNC, Williams led an NBA-bound studded cast to the 2005 national title. This coming weekend, Williams’s North Carolina team is playing in the Final Four.

Good Choice? I would say so.

Ben Howland, Pittsburgh to UCLA
After bringing the Pitt Panthers from obscurity in college basketball to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and three Big East championships games, Howland decided he was destined for bigger and better things. He accepted an offer from the biggest dynasty in college basketball history.

Starting in 2003, Howland steadily improved a struggling UCLA squad that finished 10-19 in 2002. Howland brought his defensive style to Westwood, recruiting defense-oriented athletes.

The gamble worked, as Howland led UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008. During that span, the Bruins held opponents to 59.2 points per game.

Good Choice? Probably, but a national title wouldn’t hurt.

Bill Self, Illinois to Kansas
When Roy Williams left Kansas in 2003, everyone expected Bill Self to go after his dream job in Kansas. Self appeared at an Illinois sports banquet during the rumors, and assured fans he loved his current situation.

Seven days later, Self signed with Kansas.

Early on, Self was ridiculed for underachieving. The Jayhawks had embarrassing first round upset losses in the 2005 and ’06 NCAA Tournaments. But in 2008, Self’s team-first offense enabled Kansas to finish first in the country in assists (721). In that year’s Tournament, Self led a balanced Jayhawks team to the national title game, where they defeated the Memphis Tigers in overtime in one of the greatest college basketball games of all-time.

Good Choice? Could you even argue other-wise?

Rick Pitino, Kentucky to the Boston Celtics to Louisville
Pitino’s successful three-point-attacking offense led Kentucky from 1989-1997, where they won the national title in 1996. The ’96 team was considered one of the best college teams ever. But after the 1997 season, Pitino took a shot in the NBA, where he coached the Boston Celtics to a cellar-dwelling 102-146 record over a four-year span.

Pitino returned to college basketball in 2001, and in ’05 he led the Louisville Cardinals to their first Final Four in 19 years.

Despite winning the Big East and earning the Number 1 overall seed in this year’s Tournament, the Cardinals lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

Good Choice? No for now, but Pitino looks like he is on the right track.

Billy Donovan, Florida to the Orlando Magic (sort of) to Florida
In 2005-06 and ’06-07, the Florida Gators averaged 79 points per game and won back-to-back national championships. They had five starters who could all score in double-digits.

In 2007, Donavan declined an offer from the University of Kentucky, then accepted a $27.5 million offer to coach the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Then, he changed his mind a day later.

Donovan decided to stay in Florida, where his Gators failed to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.

Good Choice? A resounding… NO!

John Calipari, Memphis to Kentucky
Calipari had it made in the shade in Memphis. The Tigers are above and beyond in Conference-USA, and if super freshman Tyreke Evans stayed, Calipari could have expected more 30-win seasons and more chances at winning a national championship (something he was a couple missed free throws away from doing last season.)

At Kentucky, Calipari will be dissected deeper than a seventh grader taking apart a frog in science class.

Still, as recent past coaching decisions have shown us, moving to an even more illustrious program than your current one often works out. Staying put and being complacent may not always continue to bring you success.

But do not take it from me, Coach Cal. Just look at a little bit of history and hopefully you’ll find your way at Kentucky.

Good Choice? To be continued…

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