One of the best parts of the holiday season is without a doubt the laziness it encourages. These last few days really have been the first time in all of 2011 I’ve had the chance to sit back, relax and not stress about all the little things. Yesterday in specific was an impressive first for me; I slept in late, and still had time for an afternoon nap. In between, I spent the rest of the day catching on every Kardashian-themed show I could find on TV, and generally, just lying around in my own squalor. To which I must say: If that isn’t heaven, I’m not quite sure what might be.
But beyond keeping up with the Kardashians and taking on the sleep patterns of a male lion, I did something else that was at least semi-interesting. I watched a college basketball practice.
Please understand that this wasn’t a particularly special practice. It didn’t have lights and pyrotechnics like Midnight Madness, and wasn’t one of those free-flowing open practices you get at the Final Four. Nope, instead, it was a regular practice, on a regular day, in a seemingly regular season for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball program. The practice had real drills, in real preparation for a real game.
Of course there was one difference from that practice and all others before or since it. That difference was that this practice streamed live online, allowing thousands of other couch-dwelling, college hoops fans to check in, and check out what the Wildcats were doing. As best I can tell, it’s the first time a college basketball program has ever done such a thing, and once again proved something I’ve been saying for years: When it comes to the promotion and marketing of his program, John Calipari really is miles ahead of the pack.
Actually, that fact alone is probably why I’m fascinated by Kentucky’s program, and why so many 17-year-old AAU hotshots feel the same way. Calipari’s presence simply makes college basketball more interesting. He’s like Bill Veeck, Dana White and Dean Smith all rolled into one; a salesman as much as a basketball coach, at a program which- quite frankly- needs no selling. Kentucky is the biggest name in college basketball, and would do fine in the PR department with someone as boring as Tom Brokaw running it (or Tubby Smith for that matter). Yet there is Calipari, practically standing on the street corner screaming “extra, extra, read all about it,” to passersby. If he weren’t coaching college basketball, I’m convinced Calipari would be the VP of Marketing at Disney or McDonald’s.
I first noticed this phenomena a few years ago when LeBron James just “happened” to show up courtside for an otherwise monotonous Saturday afternoon game at Rupp Arena, and things have only snowballed from there. With Calipari, every single day is a chance to showcase his program, a fact that I’m pretty sure pisses off everyone in college basketball who isn’t a Kentucky fan. While every other coach in college basketball would’ve seen a trip to Connecticut this past November as a chance to play a few extra games, with Calipari, it was a chance to get his players to ESPN’s headquarters and onto the set of Sportscenter. Winning a regional in Newark last March would’ve been enough for most coaches. For Calipari, it was a chance to hoop, get to the Final Four and rub elbows with Jay-Z (which caught the Jigga Man a $50,000 fine I might add). With Calipari, the wheels are always turning.
Which brings us back to Monday.
In all honesty, the practice itself wasn’t all that compelling, but instead, played out like well, a regular basketball practice. Guys ran through drills and scrimmaged, with whistles and constant “teaching moments” interrupting any type of real flow. From a pure basketball perspective, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like exactly what they are: A young team, in the grind of a college basketball season, still trying to figure themselves out. Like every other team in the country, actually.
But you know what? Who cares? The story wasn’t what was going on at practice, but that the practice was being broadcast to begin with. Name another coach in the country who’d afford his fans such a treat? Jim Calhoun certainly wouldn’t. Jim Boeheim would throw up his hands and start whining before the suggestion even came out of anyone’s mouth. Coach K might put together a pre-packaged, 30-second, “I’m a teacher, not a coach” clip that ended up on YouTube, but he’d never fully open his doors to the cameras. Roy Williams? Sure, he’s got that folksy, “good ole’ boy” vibe going. But for those who’ve paid close attention, he’s also been more cranky with the media than ever these last few years. There’s a chance that Bill Self, Tom Izzo or Thad Matta might consider what Calipari did yesterday. But to date, Cal is the only one to actually execute it.
And beyond that, I’m just gonna throw it out there: What’s the harm in at least trying something like this? Sure every other coach in college hoops would worry about another team watching and stealing info, but I wonder, is it really that big of a deal? If you’re really confident in your coaching ability and in your player’s ability to execute what you’re teaching, why does a quick open practice matter?
As a matter of fact, Monday night’s event kind of reminded me of how Pete Carroll used to run his USC football program. At the time they were the “glamour” team in the sport, and like what Kentucky did Monday, every practice was open to the public. Every…single…one. When Carroll was asked if he was afraid opponents would steal info gleaned from the practices, Carroll always responded with something to the effect of “No. We’re not trying to hide what we do from the other team. We’re just trying to out-execute them when we get on the field.” Makes sense, right? And I’m guessing if you’d asked Calipari the same question late Monday, he’d have probably given a similar answer.
Not to mention that to Kentucky’s credit, they were smart about the timing too. Sure it was branded as a “Christmas gift” to Big Blue Nation, and I’m sure to a degree it was. I also find it less than ironic that the practice came before a seemingly meaningless game against Lamar, and with plenty of time in between to prep for Louisville on Saturday. This open practice wasn’t in the heart of SEC play, or right before the Indiana, North Carolina or Louisville games either. Which I’m guessing wasn’t by accident.
But the timing really was everything in another sense too; the practice basically fell on the slowest sports week of the calendar year. College football’s bowl season isn’t fully underway, and really, neither is the NBA. The sport of college basketball still has a week or two before it’s in full throttle, and the NFL headlines were surprisingly quiet yesterday too.
Basically, Monday proved to be the perfect time for a college basketball program to do something unique to get people talking about them. For Calipari and Kentucky, it wasn’t so much about “stealing” headlines per se, as much as creating them out of thin air, when there weren’t any otherwise.
Ultimately, it was just the latest proof of something we’ve already known for a long time. When it comes to the branding and marketing of a college basketball program, nobody does it quite like John Calipari. He’s playing chess while his contemporaries play checkers. And while it may not ultimately lead to wins on the court, it does lead to buzz off of it.
At this time of year, that’s more than good enough.
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