COLUMN: League quickly feels effects of Calipari’s arrival

Is John Calipari good for the SEC? That question has made the rounds this summer, and an offshoot question has been, Is a strong Kentucky program necessary for the SEC to be considered strong?
As to the first question … well, it’s a loaded one.
The man can obviously win, but teams have a tendency to run afoul of the NCAA after he leaves them. He’s got more baggage than Paris Hilton – and, some would say, just as shady a past.
On the first question:
I, for one, did not initially buy all the hype when Calipari was hired by Kentucky to revive a program manhandled by Billy Gillispie, who had driven nothing nicer than a Corolla and suddenly had the keys to an Aston Martin.
After that recruiting haul, though – No. 1 class in the country – I’ve changed my tune quicker than Steve Spurrier changes quarterbacks.
Although a lot of talented SEC players declined pro ball to come back next season, it’s still a relatively young league. Youth plays a bigger role than it used to at the college level, so John Wall and those guys can have a big impact for the Wildcats.
I still think it’ll take a couple of years for Calipari to turn Kentucky into a national championship contender, but as the man has shown, he’s not very patient.
“People look at me and say, ‘Slow down.’ But this is how we do things,” he said Monday during a coaches teleconference.
It was the first SEC teleconference for Calipari, who fielded questions for a solid 15 minutes, more than twice the allotted time. I don’t think Craig Pinkerton, the moderator, minded letting the league’s rock star go overtime.
Bruce Pearl, coach of Kentucky’s Eastern Division rival Tennessee, said he thinks Calipari’s arrival will “bring great credibility to the SEC.” After last season – only three teams in the NCAA tournament, low RPIs all around – the SEC could use a credibility boost. So as long as scandal does not follow him to Lexington, Calipari can be very good for the league.
As to the second question posed at the top of this column, though, Pearl doesn’t think the league’s premier status rests solely in Kentucky’s hands.
Pearl reminded us that when he came into the league in 2005, one of the first things he noted was that the SEC for too long had been a one-team league. He concedes that it’s important Kentucky be strong, but …
“I don’t think Kentucky has to be the best team in our league for the SEC to be the best conference in the country,” he said.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings expects Kentucky to challenge for that superior status, though.
“To think that he would not have success at Kentucky would be foolish, and I think the perception of our league has suffered at times when Kentucky’s been down,” Stallings said. “I think the (SEC) higher-ups would tell you that it’s good for Kentucky to be good, but I don’t particularly want Kentucky to be good.”
He ended the last sentence with a chuckle, but I’d have to say that a strong Kentucky squad is something the SEC does need, no matter how good anybody else is. Traditionally strong teams drive the respect and ratings meters, and Kentucky is the one SEC team that will always push those meters, more than anyone else.
Having Calipari pushing the buttons at UK will make that happen.
He’s been good for the SEC even without coaching a game. During the teleconference, Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader asked MSU coach Rick Stansbury what kind of impact Calipari could have on the SEC.
“I think it’s obvious already the impact he’s had,” Stansbury said. “He’s got you asking me a question about him in the middle of June.”

Brad Locke (brad.locke@djournal.com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal