Mike Krzyzewski will be 75 when he retires next year. His greatest rival on the recruiting trail for a decade-plus, John Calipari, will be 63. The two have been entwined — ever-positioning to rule college basketball — for a generation. Duke and Kentucky are the sport’s two most popular (and polarizing) programs. It’s only fitting that one could make the same case about Krzyzewski and Calipari as coaches.
Wednesday’s news regarding Krzyzewski’s forthcoming farewell tour toward retirement immediately prompted plaudits and tributes far and wide. Those tributes will blossom again in November and stay in bloom for the ensuing four months (think: Zion-level coverage), until Duke plays its final game of next season and Krzyzewski coaches for the last time in his unparalleled career. But with the sport’s Zeus now getting his affairs in order, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was Calipari thinking in the minutes and hours after he learned the news? K has long been regarded as the voice and conscience of men’s college basketball.
Calipari is not only positioned to inherit that post, he’s also likely to thrive because of it.
“For as long as I can remember, Coach K has been synonymous not only with Duke but with college basketball,” Calipari said in a prepared statement released Wednesday night. “His benchmark of excellence for nearly 50 years has pushed all of us. Personally, he has challenged me as a coach and a recruiter. We have competed against one another because that’s what we do as coaches, but the respect I have for Mike and all that he has done for our game and coaches goes so far beyond the battles we have had on the court over the years. Our game is not what it is today without a lifetime of dedication and love Mike has put into it.”
Coach K is retiring after next season. Hear instant reaction on an emergency edition of Eye on College Basketball below.
Of course he had to mention the recruiting element to all of this. The chases on the trail between K and Cal have hummed the offseason college hoops news cycle almost every spring and summer for more than 10 years. Calipari almost immediately upended the recruiting dynamic in the sport by pulling in the top-rated class his first year at UK, essentially mainstreaming the one-and-done model. Krzyzewski pulled in the 16th-best class that year, but then the battle was on. In 2011, Kentucky again had the No. 1 class, but Duke — headlined by Austin Rivers’ pledge — was second.
Kentucky then raked in the No. 1 spot for four straight classes. In 2014, K caught up and took the top spot, with Calipari at No. 2. Kentucky took the throne back in 2015, then Duke leapfrogged again in 2016 and held the No. 1 ranking in recruiting for three consecutive years, with Kentucky second. From 2010-2018, either Duke or Kentucky had the best recruiting class; in 2019 both were in the top three. A year ago, Kentucky was again No. 1, Duke at No. 3.
An understandable lookahead storyline to K’s retirement is “What will become of Duke?” But perhaps the more immediate — and consequential — question is: What will become of Kentucky? Calipari stands to be a bigger beneficiary of Krzyzewski’s retirement than anyone else. UK doesn’t do down years often. Calipari is coming off the worst season of his career, a 9-16 debacle amid a season of COVID. It was so bad, he brought back former assistant Orlando Antigua, in addition to adding Chin Coleman to his staff in an effort to reset the program. (Both were at Illinois last season; the Illini earned their first No. 1 seed in 16 years.)
Safe to presume Calipari will run on jet fuel next season to make sure it resembles nothing of the prior one. And for Calipari, it always starts with recruiting. His greatest challenger is leaving.
Is a Kentucky resurgence imminent?
Jon Scheyer has been an effective recruiter the past five-plus years for Krzyzewski. He was the lead guy in bringing in Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Cam Reddish. The two highest-rated freshmen on campus now are Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin. Scheyer was lead recruiter there as well. He’ll get it done.
But Duke will not be Duke all the same without Krzyzewski on the bench. Scheyer will not be expected, nor should he, to keep the Blue Devils at the very top of the recruiting rankings — at least not immediately. With the landscape of recruiting set to change yet again, the coach most equipped to adapt is the one who always has. Calipari — detractors be damned — has made it his calling to sell his program, his university, his players, himself — all of it — and done it brilliantly with a salesman’s voice, a surgeon’s touch and an operative’s instinct.
John Calipari could thrive without Coach K at Duke
And now, with name, image and likeness legislation coming to the NCAA later this year, Kentucky’s pitch only gets stronger. There is no place in college sports where a college player can be a bigger star than in Lexington. The second the rules change, Calipari will be ready to use them to his every advantage. Kentucky is already a powerhouse, but the benefits afforded by NIL could turn Calipari’s program into a behemoth.
For as great as Calipari has been, he still only has one national title since arriving 12 years ago. He’s four behind Krzyzewski. Cutting into that by even one (and doubling his haul in the process) would be significant. You get there by taking many roads, but the path always begins with the recruiting trail.
College basketball season will start anew on Nov. 9. That evening, Madison Square Garden will play host to the annual Champions Classic. It is all but guaranteed that Kansas vs. Michigan State will be the undercard. And, as fate would have it, the perfect set-the-stage-for-the-season matchup on the schedule for opening night is Duke vs. Kentucky. K vs. Cal. It will likely be the last time they compete on the court. For Krzyzewski, the farewell tour will officially begin. For Calipari, it could signal the late-stage career push back to the top of the sport.
Someone has to take the throne, and as competitive as Jay Wright, Tony Bennett and many other great coaches are, Calipari knows he’s about to become the face of college basketball. In order to keep that title he’ll have to win an ultra-high level deep into his 60s — the way Krzyzewski did.
You could argue the best thing to happen to the winter of Krzyzewski’s career was Calipari going to Kentucky. And now, as Calipari approaches his mid-60s, Krzyzewski’s retirement could afford him a similar benefit. With K’s window closing, another door opens for Calipari to storm through. Seldom has there ever been an opportunity that Cal didn’t take advantage of to maximum ends. It is again an opportunity to stake claim to a title he’s held, if not been defined by, since revitalizing Kentucky basketball: College Basketball’s Greatest Recruiter.