UMass, John Calipari, and the Teams that Refused To Lose
UMass, a historically basement–dwelling program, made a calculated risk in 1988 by offering then-untested John Calipari his first head coaching position.
What UMass liked about Calipari was a trait that Calipari’s kinder critics called “shrewdness.” What he could and would do, and what UMass needed, was recruit good players that would agree to win and to check their egos.
Coach Cal expressed this as his willingness to play “anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
Indeed, his players would need to be shrewd on the court to turn around an A-10 team that fell to the bottom of the conference like it was their job. Moreover, Coach Cal would need to be just as shrewd off the court.
The Calipari recruiting approach
The John Calipari recruiting approach could be seen as a product of inheriting a floundering mid-major program, but his critics consider it a tactic that defines his career.
Calipari went after the best players no one else wanted, but not because they couldn’t play. These players were considered off-court liabilities.
Calipari didn’t care. If you could play, he wanted you.
Motivation and foresight
Coaching friends, ex-players, and even his most vocal critics all recognize Calipari’s prowess as a motivator. What UMass liked was the potential they saw in their coach’s vision. If he could recruit a percentage of the talent he passionately promised, the Minuteman would ride again.
Lou Roe represented Coach Cal’s first major recruiting victory. Roe came from a rough part of Atlantic City. Basketball was the way out, and Calipari became a master in that landscape. He won over Roe, his parents, and his friends.
And in 1991, Roe’s freshman year, Calipari and Roe’s Minuteman won the A-10 for the first time in team history. More importantly for fans, they lived the Cinderella role in the NCAA tournament, culminating in a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky.
Despite that outcome, that run changed everything.
Switching things up
While Roe was the first recruit to turn the tide in Amherst, Marcus Camby is no doubt the player that defines Calipari’s UMass fortunes. Camby, a prodigy from Hartford, Connecticut, and his Minutemen finished in the AP Top 10 all three years he played there.
Arriving in Lou Roe’s junior season, Camby got to see Coach Cal’s impact on a player. Roe played hard–he rebounded strong, he went to the rim strong, he passed strong, he fouled strong. These traits came to define Camby, too. The “refuse to lose” spirit turned Camby into one of the most impactful players in basketball.
He could have a two-point game, but his presence dominated the action. And while he anchored that team, teammates Edgar Padilla, Donta Bright, Dana Dingle, and Tyrone Weeks could move the ball with precision, and lock it down on defense.
The Minutemen of the mid-90’s could step into any arena against any goliath, and play their tough, precise, confident game. In 1995, Camby’s final year, UMass steamrolled the rest of the country in a battle of wills stemming from Calipari’s Refuse to Lose mantra.
The legacy of the mid-90s Minutemen
The Calipari years at UMass (1988-1995) were undeniably successful: A 173–91 record, five A-10 championships, five NCAA appearances, and a unity in the 95-96 Minutemen that produced some of the best team basketball most people had ever seen.
However, in many people’s eyes, that year was a blight on the program. Camby took bribes and “gifts” offered by agents. The Final Four appearance was vacated, the school forfeited over $150,000, Camby left for the NBA, and Coach Cal packed up and took the head coaching job with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.
The glorious circus had left town.
Looking back on it now, after a similar Calipari controversy cost Memphis a Final Four berth in 2007-08, it is challenging to withhold blame from the head coach for, at least, knowingly lying; and, at most, grossly mishandling the young men who looked up to him.
It should be noted Calipari was never accused nor penalized by the NCAA for actions at UMass and Memphis. The ESPN film “One and Not Done” paints him as a shocked citizen that couldn’t believe his players would do that. At this point in time, the only thing left is to decide whether you believe Calipari.
And there is good debate in this. Where there is less room for debate is in the product he brought to the court.
The UMass Minutemen of the mid-90s could play. They refused to lose, and they rarely did.