John Calipari is now among the greatest college coaches in the game. He has taken Kentucky to four Final Fours, and, if you count the ones he got caught for cheating in UMass and Memphis, six Final Fours in his career.
He’s been named National Coach of the Year three times, won a national championship with Kentucky in 2012, and is perhaps on the verge of another one with a Wildcats team that is now 38-0 and is going to another Final Four after a 68-66 win over Notre Dame on Saturday night where he and his team showed toughness to go along with their talent.
His record over 23 college basketball seasons is 592-174.
His NBA coaching record coaching the New Jersey Nets from 1996 to 1999? A big black mark on his resume — 72-112.
While Calipari may have become more tolerable over the years as he has matured, there is little doubt that still has one of the all-time egos in a business filled with Hall of Fame egos. And despite all the success he has had and may continue to have in Kentucky, there is still his NBA failure that likely eats at him — now confirmed by a report in The Record in northern New Jersey last week.
One Brooklyn Nets official was quoted anonymously about Calipari’s burning desire to return to the NBA. “He desperately wants it,” the official said. “He won’t say it out loud. The NBA is the only place he’s every failed and it drives him nuts. He’s not the same guy he was then. He came to the NBA and he wasn’t ready. He’s ready now.”
If that is true, then Wizards owner Ted Leonsis needs to be ready now to convince Calipari that the best place for him to erase his NBA failure and build up another championship legacy is in Washington.
I’ve written several times over the years that Leonsis should make Calipari an offer he can’t refuse to come to Washington to run the whole show — coach and president of basketball operations — and nothing has changed with the Wizards over that time to abandon that quest.
Sure, this team has gone from laughingstock to competitive over the past several years. But all that means is they have climbed back to Wizards limbo — a repeat of the first Golden Era of Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld — when they would win 40-45 games a year, make the playoffs and then leave quickly.
Nothing about this current Wizards team would indicate they are anything more than that in this second Golden Era of Grunfeld — and that should be unacceptable to Leonsis, who has owed this fan base more than he has delivered ever since he took over ownership of the team in 2010.
This team has a general manager who took 11 seasons for one of his teams to win a second-round playoff game. This team has a coach in Randy Wittman who, despite last season’s 44-38 record and this year’s winning mark, has a career coaching record of 232-361 in nine seasons. Given their struggles this season, one has to wonder if the coach who truly led them last season was the one who left to join Doc Rivers in Los Angeles with the Clippers — former Wizards assistant Sam Cassell.
That’s the kind of record that would embarrass Calipari.
If you are one of those Wizards fans who believes that your team is just biding time until D.C.’s own Kevin Durant becomes a free agent in 2016, then ask yourself this question.
Do you really think Durant is going to be wooed to Washington by the likes of Grunfeld and Wittman?
Or would you rather have Calipari making that pitch?
The new NBA has been built in part by Calipari and his young players around the league, including Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and, of course, John Wall, who remains very close to Calipari. His presence would elevate the status of this franchise in the league among players, agents and sponsors. And he has proven that he is more than a slick-backed salesman in a nice suit. He has taken young talented men and turned them into committed young talented men on the court who are becoming the blueprint for the new NBA.
Brooklyn Nets CEO Brett Yormark told ESPN that Calipari was like a rock star at the all-star weekend events in Brooklyn.
“I saw the reception he got from NBA all-stars, all his former players, and it was like they were seeing an old friend for the first time in a while,” he said.
Ted Leonsis needs to make friends with John Calipari. Good friends.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.