Legacies at stake in Bill Self-John Calipari national title matchup
NEW ORLEANS. -- Jordan Juenemann remembers the last time Bill Self and John Calipari met with the national title at stake. Now a Kansas senior, Juenemann was just another Jayhawk fan in 2008, proud owner of a basketball signed by the whole team. He was in his Hays, Kan., house with his family, nerve-wracked as Kansas trailed by nine late in the contest, a championship seeming to have slipped away.
His mother became too anxious and went upstairs, but Juenemann stuck around and watched as his prayers were answered. First, the Jayhawks' miraculous rally, capped by Mario Chalmers' iconic three, took them to the title in overtime. Then, after deciding to enroll in Lawrence, he made the team as a walk-on that fall. Monday night, he'll have a much better view.
Tyshawn Taylor recalls it, too. The senior point guard had not yet committed to the Jayhawks on that fateful night in San Antonio, but he tuned in to watch his favorite player, Sherron Collins, go to work against Memphis and precocious freshman Derrick Rose. His lasting memory is of the Jayhawks chipping away at the Tigers' lead down the stretch and then making the plays to win, much as Kansas did to Ohio State in the semifinals on Saturday.
Conner Teahan was at the Alamodome that night, a seldom-used freshman on the Jayhawks bench, watching a slew of future NBA players contest a college championship. He knows things are different for this Kansas team, less talented but plenty gritty, as they once again prepare to square up with a Calipari-led monster on the season's final evening.
Practically all of the faces have changed, but the impact of that night remains vivid, both in the way the game played out and what it meant for the two coaches and, in a grander scheme, the college game. Now the two meet again, with further stamps on their legacies and philosophies hanging in the balance.
Given the outlandish levels of success both coaches have experienced since that night, it's hard to recall that they were considered the outsiders in that Final Four. Self's tournament legacy to that point was that he couldn't win the big game. There were embarrassing back-to-back, first-round losses to Bucknell and Bradley mixed in with an inability to get past the Elite Eight, a hurdle he had stumbled at four times previously before making it to San Antonio by the skin of his teeth. He drew a matchup with Roy Williams, Self's Hall of Fame predecessor at Kansas who already had won his elusive first title in Chapel Hill the same season the Jayhawks were stunned by the Bison.
It took Calipari five years and three NIT appearances before he got Memphis rolling. Having missed on prep ubertalents like Amar'e Stoudemire before the "one-and-done" rule came into effect, the Rose-fueled Tigers were a precursor to today's freshman-heavy Kentucky model. At the time, though, semifinal foil Ben Howland was the nationally revered coach, making his third straight Final Four with UCLA. It also didn't help that whispers about Rose's eligibility dogged Calipari all season, and ultimately cost him the year in the record books when the NCAA intervened afterward and vacated the campaign.
Four years later, and it's clear both men have been empowered by the success of that year. In victory, Self was able to have the comfort to turn down a chance to take over at alma mater Oklahoma State and now is piloting a program that has stunningly won at least a share of eight straight Big 12 championships. It may be a stretch to say he's made Jayhawk faithful forget about Williams, but Self has a 269-52 record in Lawrence and has a chance to win his second national title, which would put him in very, very elite company. It's rare for a school to replace one Hall of Famer with a coach who then grows into that level, but that appears to be where Self is headed.
For Calipari, the failure that night, thanks in large part to some clanked free throws after his memorable (and perhaps desperate) claim that his poor-shooting team would make them when it mattered, really has been the driving force in the massive landscape change he's enacted in Lexington. When Billy Gillispie bombed in two seasons as Tubby Smith's replacement, Calipari was more than ready to shed the relative obscurity of Conference USA for the nation's hottest spotlight. Already established as a top-tier talent acquirer, he now had the brand to go with the pitch, which now has become a siren call to the nation's superelite prospects. Come to the most prestigious program in the land, give yourself to the team and each other, we'll try to win a national title, and I'll land you in the first round of the NBA Draft.
It's impossible to argue with the success of the plan. Calipari is an outlandish 101-14 in his three seasons in Lexington and has gone a step further each season, from an Elite Eight exit in 2010 to this year's title-game berth. He has done all of this despite having to mostly start from scratch each season, the outcry about his bastardization of the college game and whispers about Worldwide Wes obscuring the fact that Calipari has done an outstanding coaching (and personality management) job with these teams.
The uproar about the one-and-done model is part culture clash and part jealousy. Saturday night, after seeing his Cardinals fade late and lose for the second time this season to their (and his) arch rival, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino issued an extremely backhanded compliment. He feted Calipari's success then said he couldn't do what Calipari does, that he wouldn't be able to say hello and goodbye to players in seven months. Cynics would wonder whether it's just that Pitino can't get those types of players away from Calipari.
In his own press conference, Calipari rightly pointed out that North Carolina and Duke, among others, also were losing freshmen (and sophomores) early to the draft. Are they also bad for the college game, he asked? Just because it's not a systematic plan at those schools doesn't mean the bottom line is different. Calipari has created a perfect storm in Lexington. A national title would fill the lone gap in his outstanding (if not controversial) resume and provide him and his plan with ultimate validation.
It was only four years ago that these men first met on this stage, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Sitting in front of his locker Saturday night, Taylor said that night in 2008 has been talked about for the entirety of his four years in Kansas and he's excited for the chance to make some of his own history. Both of these coaches will make some more, too, and like in any battle, the winner gets to write it. Whoever does win Monday night, the result will speak volumes, whether the coach himself does or not.