published Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Epps: Calipari at UK would be great for SEC


by Darren Epps

Mention John Calipari’s name, and I think of the following:

* The time former Temple coach John Chaney threatened to straight-up murder Calipari, maybe the wildest sports news conference moment in the history of ever.

* The time Jayson Williams, who played under Calipari with the New Jersey Nets, said, “When Cal goes to church and dips his hand in the holy water, watch out. It starts to bubble.”

* Lots and lots and lots of wins.

Calipari’s move to Kentucky, and it appears imminent, is great for the Southeastern Conference. It’s going to be fun. It’s great for Tennessee. The SEC has a villain.

Kentucky basketball will matter again, bringing respect to the conference. Tennessee can now more easily raid Memphis for talent. And the Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry no longer feels contrived and forced. Not with Calipari and Bruce Pearl.

Remember, it was Pearl who sarcastically said, “I don’t want to deny the fans in Knoxville the opportunity to see one of the greatest coaches who ever has ever coached the game in John Calipari.”

Pearl doesn’t have a choice anymore. Calipari will make one trip to Knoxville every season.

Let’s start with Calipari the coach. He’s not Billy Gillispie, with three career NCAA tournament victories. Calipari took not one but two schools from outside the BCS conferences to the Final Four. The man wins games.

And, as you might know, respect for SEC basketball right now lies somewhere between the East Timor soccer team and the Detroit Lions. LSU won the SEC with a 13-3 record this season and earned an 8 seed. Yikes.

Kentucky’s relevance will help make SEC basketball relevant again. It’s more fun when Kentucky is good. Remember, ESPN’s new contract with the SEC means more TV games. The SEC needs watchable basketball instead of showing its struggles to the entire country.

Then, of course, there’s Calipari the person. It seems that no one likes him, in a love-to-hate kind of way. Not like Gillispie, a sniveling little man with the entertainment value of a preseason hockey game without audio.

Calipari is quotable, animated and fearless in expressing his opinion. I loved his reaction after Chaney’s explosion, when Calipari deadpanned, “Some things never cease to amaze me.”

And that’s what makes the Pearl-Calipari dynamic so intriguing. Here you have two coaches who aren’t afraid to speak out, which makes people love to hate them. And, I’m sorry, but the Kentucky-Tennessee “rivalry” never seemed that real to me. That’s like Rich Brooks taking over Kentucky football and calling Tennessee a rival.

But Tennessee, despite getting swept by Kentucky this season, is much closer to competing with the Wildcats on an annual basis. Calipari’s exit from Memphis should only help Pearl in recruiting. And this all coincides nicely with Calipari’s arrival at Kentucky.

Pearl and Calipari, now meeting twice every year, should give us plenty of entertaining moments. Pearl will want to beat Kentucky more than ever. This really is great for Tennessee and the SEC.

You will, of course, hear a lot about Calipari’s somewhat questionable past a lot the next few days. But if Calipari starts winning and then gets caught breaking rules, that won’t be Tennessee’s problem. That will be Kentucky’s problem.

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