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In September, UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari sat down for a roundtable interview with local media members, including KyForward’s Jon Hale, to talk about his new team, the pressure of repeating and a host of other topics.
You can see the transcript of the interview below (Questions have been edited for clarity):
Last year you cautioned us several times about how hard it was to know much about your team at this point. How much difference did the summer workouts make as far as knowing what you have?
There are times when the more information you get, the more confused you are. That’s kind of where I am with this group. Like, what I would have thought, some of the questions I had, now I have more questions. One of them being, how much can we play two big guys together? It’s funny, I said to Coach (Joe B.) Hall, ‘We’re going to have to sit down and talk about this two-big-guy thing.’ And he (said), ‘I got some good stuff for you.’ But we’re going to have to figure out, do we play with those two (Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein) together, and how about, do we play with the three big guys together? How much does Archie (Goodwin) play point, because if he’s at point, he’s a lot like Tyreke Evans. And then with Alex (Poythress), your question is, OK, how close can we get his motor to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Can we even get him in the same ballpark? Will Julius (Mays), who makes shots, be able to make them in this environment, when he’s not playing 35 minutes a game, but yet you’ve got to make shots? So we’ve got a lot of questions.
We’re going to play fast. We’re going to play the dribble-drive. How we get into the dribble-drive, we’ve changed every single year I’ve been here. We’re going to play defense. Will we play some zone this year? I can say yes and the chances are slim and none, but I’m going to tell you, yeah, we’re going to think about playing some zone this year. I’ve talked about maybe a 2-3 with the two big guys on the wings, 7-foot, 6-11. Then I thought maybe we could play a 3-2 with the two bigs down low, which means they cover the corners, which those two can: one cover (a) corner, the other under the basket, the other cover (the opposite) corner, the other under the basket and maybe a Kyle (Wiltjer) or an Alex in the middle covering the low post. I mean, there’s different ways we can do it, but we could be longer than we were a year ago at times.
Who was your most pleasant surprise of the summer workouts?
Willie (Cauley-Stein) is the guy that I would tell you that I did not (foresee). First of all, I never saw him play in a high school basketball game. I saw him play football a bunch. I went to the high school and he had a tennis racquet. And we’re walking around, ‘Kid do you ever play basketball? Do you ever think about that sport?’ He was a kid that would play Wiffle ball. I told him when we recruited him, ‘You don’t even know how good you’re gonna become. You have no idea what’s going to happen for you.’
He and I were sitting in the lodge the other day, and I said, ‘Are you kind of amazed?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ Would you say, ‘You’re better than you thought, aren’t you?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ He’s taking on the sport for the first time where he’s really focused on this sport. He’s gained weight – 20, 25 pounds – his skill set has absolutely improved. He’s fast, he’s nimble. You see him on the football tapes. So now, he gained ground on Nerlens (Noel) because Nerlens wasn’t here. Those eight weeks of conditioning, weight training and 16 one-hour workouts put him on a different level than Nerlens. Now, I’m good with that. Because now when Nerlens catches up, you’ll see the improvement of his game. (People say) ‘Oh he’s not as good as we thought.’ OK, so when he’s drafted really high you’ll say, ‘Well, he was that way when he got him.’ Well, you just said he wasn’t what you thought? ‘Yeah, I was just saying that.’
You hear so many coaches talk about the challenges of repeating. With such a new team, do you even address it? How do you even treat the fact that you won it last year?
We’ve already talked. That thing’s done. None of these guys were even a part of that. We’re worried about being the best team we can be. And does that mean we could be better than last year? Maybe. What does being better than last year mean? Well, you’re really good. That means that the team is really close, and that means the team really sacrificed. Shared sacrifice is the No. 1 thing in the team if it’s the same.
But we’re not worried. That thing’s over and done. This is a new team. We don’t even know how we’re going to play. Literally, we don’t know how we’re going to play yet. And that’s the disadvantage that I said where you have all these teams that know how they’re going to play. They have the same teams back. They’re just going to touch up. They add a couple guys to see if they can get better, and they build on a base. Well, we have no base.
Thank goodness we could do some this summer. I don’t know if I had a senior team, junior team, whether I’d have liked the summer stuff.
Bill Self said after he won a title that he thought he was prepared for all the stuff that came with it, and maybe he wasn’t as prepared as he thought he was. Have you reached out to any guys who have won titles in the past about things that might be unexpected?
First of all, you’re at Kentucky. I can ask the guy that sat in the seat. Other than that, you’re asking somebody who… this is a different animal. But I did sit down with Nick Saban. We spent an hour talking about 2010, what happened in 2011 and now it’s 2012. What are you going to do different? He and I sat down for an hour. It was really good stuff that he talked about.
The difference is, he had returning players from that team. But he said, ‘I have some guys that were on that 2010 team that are now on this team, and they are not letting that happen.’ A lot of it is you take your eye off the ball. A lot of it is he talked about, as a group you step back. I read the article that was in USA Today (in August) that he talked about, ‘We talk about drinking the poison all the time.’
But this is different here, because it’s a brand-new team. It’s not like, ‘OK, they won and now how are you going to guard against complacency?’ How about we change the whole team and no one’s on the team? How about that one? There’s one way of changing it.
The only thing I can do is what I do, which is, I’m worried about this team. How good can we be? When we lost six games in our league (in 2011), I kept telling all you guys, ‘I like my team. We’re going to be fine. We’re losing by a point, we’re losing by two points. I like my team. We’re going to be fine.’ What ended up happening is if we had played better against Connecticut on that day, we’d have won the national title. I kept telling you, ‘There’s no team out there that scares me.’ And I don’t know enough about the teams coming up (this year). I do know the first two teams we’re playing are going to give us a problem. You’re going to talk about veteran teams that, their whole summer has been thinking about Kentucky. Both of those teams. So we could go 0-2 to start off and still have a really good team. I mean, we don’t even know how we’re going to play. It’ll be interesting.
You’ve talked a lot about playing fast and trying to play up-tempo this year. The one guy you have returning, Kyle Wiltjer, is not the quickest guy in the world. How does he fit into that playing style?
Perfectly. And I’ll tell you why: he’ll be behind the ball all the time. So now, he’ll take it out and we are flying. If he rebounds it, he’ll be behind. If he doesn’t rebound it, he’ll still be out ahead and he’ll be fine, and we still may trail him into a dragging screen. But what I like is, we fly, and as the ball comes back, it’s coming back to his hands. Now you have a skilled player. And again, I’m not trying to compare him to somebody, but later in his career that’s what they did with (Larry) Bird. Then from that position, they would go pick-and-roll, dribble handoffs, he’d shoot the three. You know what I’m saying? After it went, ‘Here we go,’ it’s not there? Give it to him and now we’ll play through him. And I see that being one of the things (Wiltjer does).
I see us running random pick-and-rolls with him a bunch, because what happens is, there’s pick-and-pop, and they’ll say, ‘You can switch, because you don’t have to guard him in the post.’ Well, he’s a really good post player, and if you’re too small, he will score on you in there. Right now, he’s having to score against these two long ones. When we put Anthony (Davis) and those three together, two of the three were bigger than Anthony. Now longer? I didn’t really have them put their arms up, which if I had to do it over again I would. Maybe I will next time. But Willie’s reach is longer than Nerlens’. With Kyle having to score over those guys, you put a little guy on him, he’s scoring baskets.
You talk about turning over the whole roster, but Kyle Wiltjer’s videos at least seem to indicate he’s taken some of these younger guys under his wing. How important might be to at least be the one guy to anchor the new guys to the success you’ve had?
What I keep telling these guys (is), ‘You can’t just work by yourself. You got to drag some guys with you.’ I came over one night, I was here about 10:30, 11 o’clock, and a light was on. I heard the ball bouncing, I look outside my office window, and it was Kyle, who had grabbed a manager, walked across the street and had a great workout. I grabbed him after and I said, ‘Why wasn’t someone here with you, or a couple of these guys? Don’t come over here by yourself. Drag a couple guys with you.’ We’ve got to start doing that.
The other side of it is, they played the other day with Anthony (Davis). So I called Anthony into my office after and I said, ‘Tell me what my team looks like.’ And the first thing out of his mouth, he said, ‘Kyle is way better. He’s way stronger, can do more things. I really like where Kyle is right now.’ So that was one of the things he said, which was kind of neat.
Who do you suspect may be your Darius Miller piece, the older guy, the experienced guy, kind of the rock? Is Julius Mays in a position even though he’s new to the program where he can be that, or is there someone else you see that maybe can be that role?
I don’t even know if we’ll have that role. Again, I don’t know what this team is. This team’s going to be different. Could it be Julius coming off the bench doing it? Yeah. It could be a guy like Willie or somebody coming off the bench. We’re going to have six or seven starters again, like we did a year ago. So whoever comes off, you want them to add to what we’re doing. I don’t know who that’ll be yet.
What did you like about Julius Mays that made you want to add him to this program?
Great kid who had performed at a high level, who could make baskets, especially jump shots and that wanted to be a part of this and understood what it meant. Like, we don’t make any promises. Are you good coming off the bench? Are you good if that’s the case? ‘I’m good. I’m good. I’m good.’ He knew what he was walking into.
People say, ‘Why don’t you just go out and recruit a Top 50 or 60 player that understands he’s going to be seventh or eighth man?’ Well, good luck. The Top 50 or 60 player what does he think? How long until the NBA? Do you understand? To say you just go find that guy – it’s impossible. Those guys think that they’re starters and they think that they’re one-and-done. It’s hard to do.
Did Ryan Harrow get what you wanted out of the year off? Did you see him accomplish some things in that year he had here?
Yeah. He got beat up. He played against a pit bull every day who just was letting him know. The thing I’ve said about Ryan (is) I want Ryan to be the best layup shooter in the SEC. I don’t need any cuteness. Get to the basket and shoot layups. If they absolutely back off like they tried to play Marquis Teague, (Harrow) shoots it a little bit better. But I want you to shoot layups, and that’s what you’re doing, which means you’ve got to play through bumps, keep going. ‘Well, the guy’s big.’ You better shoot it over him. That’s what we want.
The good news is, you have Archie right there who can play the position too. We’ve got flexibility. You can do Archie and Julius. You can do that. You could do two guards and three bigs. You could do Alex as a four. I’m going to be honest, Alex is a three/four, four/three. Now you put him at four, you know how quick he is? Oh my gosh. There is no four in our league that can guard him off the bounce. They’d have to just back away and hope he’s not making shots. So there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve just got to play games. You can think we’d know it in practice. You’ve got to play the games. And then you’ve got to play games like those first two. Those first two are going to be major learning experiences, and we’ve got to use them that way. We want to win every game we play. But the biggest thing is, we’ve truly got to learn and experiment and mess around, because we’ll see something like we did two years ago that it’s like, ‘All right, we got this,’ and (the players) get it. Not just me getting it, they get it, and all the sudden they start having confidence in who’s what and how they’re going to play and what they’re going to do. These guys haven’t played together.
Do you have a team that you think has six guys who on a given night who could lead the team in scoring?
Seven. Oh yeah. Let me tell you what (Cauley-Stein’s) job will be: outrun everybody down the floor, both ends. When we do drills, everything we do, someone wins, someone loses. He finishes first in all the runs. He’s 7-foot tall and he’s finishing first. And he’s running hard, not just striding. I mean, he’s flying. What we’ll look (for) from him is, just take off (to see) if he can get two, three layups a half just flying. Just outrun their big.
So if you have a team like that with seven guys that can lead you in scoring, do you go into the game figuring out matchups or is it just who’s hot?
Usually the game unfolds, and you know. Anytime you go in (saying), ‘Here’s how we’re going to do this,’ OK, now it didn’t happen coach; what are you doing now? I mean, it’s almost like we’re going to go in, ‘This is how we play’ and then we kind of move from there.
Last year, how were they trying to stop us? Well for a while they just said, ‘Just beat ‘em up. Just absolutely throw people to the floor. Physically go after people. It’s the only way.’ Then they tried a little bit of zone, and we’re throwing dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk in the zone defense and they’re better off playing man. Don’t leave Anthony. You remember that one? Just stay back. Then you had what Louisville did: Just run at the guy so he couldn’t throw the lob. Just leave him completely. Just run. Here he comes, run, block the lob. Well, you blocked one, but it only tipped it, and we dunked that one.
You’ve got to look at what they do. Ryan could lead us. How will people play us? Until we start playing games…
What do you envision for Nerlens this year? When you get him to where you want, what kind of things will be be able to do for you?
I asked Anthony, ‘How was Nerlens?’ because that’s who he matched up against mostly. He said, ‘He’s good, coach. He’ll block some shots.’ I said, ‘How was he offensively?’ He said, ‘I kind of pushed him off the post.’ I said, ‘You pushed him off the post?’ Which is kind of like, OK, we’ve got to teach the kid how to sit down and hold your position until he gets stronger. But what he is, he’s not ever going to be Shaq. That’s not how he is. But he’s really quick and fast, and he’s got a quick twitch.
If a kid is slow going to the ball or reacting to the ball, he can’t play. I don’t care what you say. He cannot play. If a kid is quick – really quick – going to the ball, now he’s got a chance of being special. Anthony was really quick getting to balls. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was really quick. Now we had two that were just ‘Bang!’ to balls. Well, this kid is the same way. He’s the quickest on our team getting to balls and doing stuff like that.
If he’s on that baseline or he’s in the high post area with hand-offs and rolls and all that stuff, he’ll finish with dunks. But he’s not in shape right now. He’s physically behind, back hurts. No kidding. You’re out of shape. You just started here. But I think he’ll be fine.
Do you have any concerns about his availability? Do you feel confident he’ll be out there?
They do this kind of review with a bunch of kids. And the review, when you’re reclassifying, there’s a red flag. And then some people are mad that you reclassified, there’s another red flag. And they go through the process, but it’s a review. So we feel confident. We feel pretty good about it.
Before, it was always your point guards, could they live up to the reputation at that position…
This one has that too.
But do you think Nerlens can handle that comparison to Anthony?
He shouldn’t be compared. They’re totally different. They’re not even the same. Nerlens is going to give us a different type of game. Anthony understood how to compete on possessions. Nerlens is still learning. Like, he’ll take possessions off. Well, you can’t do that. What he is is a normal freshman. And Anthony, we forget where Anthony was early in the year. I mean, yeah, he could dunk balls and do all that. He had absolutely no post game. He was shaky shooting free throws until in the end he became a real good free-throw shooter. Physically couldn’t hold his position. He did stuff and looked good, you know, running, but he came a long way as the year went on. And he was able to because the team was so good, it wasn’t totally on his shoulders, and he was able to build some self-esteem and confidence as the year went on. And that’s what I’m hoping for this kid. That’s why I like the fact that we do have seven guys that could lead us in scoring, similar to last year.
Which of the freshmen came in most ready to play a game tomorrow?
Probably Alex and Archie would be the two, but they still…We’ve been working on Archie (developing) a consistent shot. You can’t shoot different kind of balls. You can’t lean one way. You’ve got to shoot consistently. When you’re in high school you can miss your first 12. I’m getting 12 more, 15 more. I’m good. Now you can’t do that. In his case, you’ve got to be a very consistent shooter. So he’s not ready for that yet. And if he’s going to shoot a lot of balls for us, he better be a consistent shooter. It doesn’t mean you make every shot. It doesn’t mean you shoot consistently as far as making them. It means every shot you shoot is in that range. You look at it and that’s the same shot, whether you’re running, whether it’s in transition, whether it’s a three, whether it’s a free throw, you have the same look to your shot. He doesn’t have that right now.
Alex is just the motor. We’ve got to get him to understand how hard on every possession you must play. When we get him there, he will be scary. But right now, we’re going to be behind. That’s just the way it is. Last year we had Doron (Lamb), we had Terrence (Jones) and we had Darius Miller. They had all been to a Final Four the year before. You’re talking about one truly veteran player and two that seems to be as veteran as we keep here, two-year guys.
What sense do you have about whether Jon Hood can help you or maybe even Twany Beckham in terms of filing a specific role if you need them in certain situations?
We’re counting on (that). I’d like to know one of them (could help), or Jarrod (Polson) right now. I mean, Jarrod has probably improved as much as anybody that I saw in the workouts that we’ve done. For us to be what we need to be, those two and Jarrod have got to give us something on that court. But really in practice, they’ve got to perform at a high level so we’re going at each other.
If we do that, you think about it – if those two can play against the other guys, then shoot, you should be able to play against any of these guys. Then it’s like, ‘OK, what do I do to help the team win?’ not, ‘How do I want to play?’ It’s not how you want to play. ‘What do I do to help this team win, and what’s going to be my job?’ Those are the things.
Jon’s gotten better. He’s coming off that knee (injury). He was with the guards the other day, and he did fine.
You’ve said to play here you have to have a creation mentality to deal with all the fans, us, etc. Most of the guys you’ve had seem to have embraced that. Does this group get what it means to play here?
We’ll see. They knew coming in, I know that. It was explained to them very directly in the recruiting process. It’s funny, Bob Rotella met with the team and met with individuals. I’ve never done it this early, but I felt to do it with this team was important. His thing to me is, ‘Where do you find players that are this good that are this nice of kids? How are you finding these guys?’ I said, ‘Well, part of it’s the recruiting process where you’re telling kids “If you think you’re going to shoot every ball, if you think it’s all about you, if you think that you’re going to be the only guy, if you think I’m going to tell you you’re going to start, play 30 minutes and get all the shots, you don’t need to be here. It’s the wrong place to be. If you want to go out and run around, chase and do all that stuff, don’t come here. It’s the wrong place to go.’
And so I think it starts in the recruiting process. We’re not begging kids. We’re recruiting kids and we’re recruiting hard, but we’re telling them the truth. It’s hard here. This is a unique place. ‘Aw, you’re arrogant.’ All right, I tell the kid he’ll start and play 30 minutes a game and we’ll give him every shot and you’ll be drafted No. 1 and then we’ll put your name in the rafters. What else you want me to tell him? I mean, you can do it that way, or you can do what I do, which is tell the truth and just say, ‘That’s it. That’s how it is here,’ and if you want this, then you come. The result is, of what’s happened for our players, not only that, that they’re prepared, though, for this stuff that’s happening. Our guys have gone and stepped up, and guys that people never thought would do X, Y, Z are in that league.
How much did the level of success from last year affect the mentality of the group this year?
Well, there’s a couple things. One, the academic bar has been raised here. It’s been raised ever since Brandon Knight came here. So you’re talking about, they understand that you’ve got a responsibility and if you don’t hold up that responsibility then it’s hard for us to believe we can count on you. So that has changed.
The other thing that I would tell you is that if you think shots matter, like, ‘If I’m not getting my shots…’ If you think shots matter, ask Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, the No. 1 and 2 picks in the draft, who got the fourth- and fifth-most shots on our team. Ask those two if it mattered. So I don’t need any phone calls. I don’t need anybody talking to me. That’s changed now. So don’t tell me.
I think again what they were as a team and how they were their brothers’ keeper gives you an idea. Are you willing to do all that? Are you willing to be the sixth man? Are you willing to do what Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did (against) Vanderbilt and come in and say, ‘Coach, start Darius Miller in the (SEC Tournament) championship game, because he’s playing so bad. We need him in the NCAA Tournament?’ Are you willing to do that? ‘Umm, I don’t think so, but I think he will.’ Then everybody that surrounds us are these kids that think, ‘Well, I should do this.’ I think it just kind of wipes all that out and it makes us different in that they understand it’s not how many shots I take, it’s how I play. It’s what I add to the team. It’s what people see in me and what I’ll be as a teammate. It’s ‘Does our team win? And if we win at a high level, everybody’s going to want all of us.’ Those are the kind of things that are teaching tools I’ll use the rest of my career. This will be one of those things. Hopefully this team I’m coaching now will give me more ammo to be able to go back at people and say, ‘Don’t look at this; look at that.’
You continue to bring back former players in that graduate assistant type of role. Other than trying to help them, is there a tangible effect that those guys can have on your current players in terms of this place and dealing with them?
If they do, fine. That’d be great. It’d be like an added (bonus). But that’s not why we’re doing it. We just added one of the first players I ever recruited, just got done playing in Europe, was added to the weight staff. Brian Shorter. Was at Pittsburgh. He just got done playing. Just finished up his degree. Orlando (Antigua) and I got after Pitt, ‘Hey man, get this guy back, let him finish his degree.’ He wasn’t that far. So now we’re getting him started in that weight and conditioning stuff. The greatest thing is being in a position to do it. Now, does Brian Shorter add something to (our staff)? Well, I don’t know. If he does, that’s great. But if he doesn’t and we help another young man get on with his life, you know.
Marquis (Estill) being back, I just got a letter from his seventh-grade teacher, who was a brand-new teacher, and the kid was so nice to her that she had a relationship with him that she helped him with math or something. And now, he made her feel good as a teacher when she first started when she was unsure, because he was such a nice kid, and (she wrote), ‘I’m the biggest fan of this kid. He made me feel good.’ I just got that letter back about him. That makes it kind of like, hey, these kids, they’re good kids. Some of them are finishing careers. I told Nazr (Mohammed). Nazr has some time left. He didn’t finish (his degree). I said, ‘When you’re done playing, come back and finish. You can be on my staff for a year. Finish up.’ We did it obviously with Wayne Turner, who was really good for us. Really good for us.
Will the players listen to them more because they’ve been here?
The players know players from the last three years. They have no idea who that kid is. ‘You played here? How old are you?’ They have no idea who these kids are.
What do you hope Kyle Wiltjer got out of his trip to play with the Canadian team?
One, I knew he’d be up there with good players and he’d get good coaching and good competition. He and I talked. I said, ‘You need to go up there.’ Maurizio (Gherardini), who I knew from my UMass days, he used to be a GM over in Italy and had a couple of my players on his team, called and said, ‘Hey, we really want Kyle up here.’ I said, ‘Look, as long as he doesn’t miss too much school.’ So we got him up there, and I’ll tell you what, they loved him. They loved him. And he was ecstatic. He said, ‘Coach, there was this guy from the Lakers and he had us doing stuff. I wish I could have stayed. It was really good. He gave us some different things we were doing. I said, ‘How’d you shoot?’ He said, ‘I was really making them.’ He said, ‘I was killing.’ That’s what he said to me.
It’s like Willie the other day, and this is the greatest thing when you’re coaching, when you see guys start building. He didn’t have a shirt on, and I looked at his arm and I said, ‘Man, you got some bumps. It’s crazy.’ He makes a muscle and points at the weight strength coach, ‘He helped me.’ And I just bust out laughing. I said, ‘Come on, man. You gotta be kidding me.’ But that’s the stuff in this.
You’re coaching at Kentucky and you understand that this is life and death for some people, but it’s not life and death for me. I told you before, we want to win championships for the state and the commonwealth. The most important thing is helping these young kids. It’s a players-first program. If we do right by them, if we make decisions based on them, they will drag us where we want to go.
I said three years ago – and we had guys write stories and try to get people to comment on it – those five guys going in the first round were the biggest or one of the biggest (days in the history of the program). I may have said the biggest, and I think I probably am right, because now you have every player in the country wanting to do what? Play here. And it started with those five going in the first round which is something that’s never done, may never be done again unless we do it here. Now all of the sudden it’s changed what’s happened for us, and now we stay as a players-first (program) and they drag us to this. Let’s see where this team can drag us.
Are you happy with how the nonconference schedule turned out?
Yeah. And again… I wanted to play that Indiana game. I thought those would be great games in Indianapolis, but that’s fine. We got Baylor. North Carolina’s being added back (next season), and you’ll have Louisville and North Carolina one away, one home every year. You’ll have some neutral games every year. We’re still in the process of the Duke stuff every year where we’ll play at a neutral site. Mike (Krzyzewski) says he wants to do it, so now we’ve just got to (do it). He and I, you won’t believe this, he’s been kind of busy and I’ve been kind of busy, so we haven’t matched cards yet, but I think that’ll be done. And then we’ll play two or three other games, maybe another game here and there depending on our team. What if everybody comes back? Yeah, we may add some single-shot games and play more to prepare the team. But I think we’re doing what most of the teams are doing now. You’re playing a schedule that fits, and you’d like to play more, but that’s for fans and me. This is about these kids. You put a schedule together that, when you start talking about the SEC adding two more games, you can say, ‘Well, you’re not playing as many non-conference,’ yeah, because we’re playing two more conference games. Missouri. We’re playing one of those teams twice. Texas A&M.
What do the two new teams do for the strength of the conference?
Missouri is picked above us. A&M, they struggled last year, but I think they’re going to be good again. I think they’ll be fine. They slipped a little bit, but I think they’re going to be fine.
It seems you’ve been going nonstop even since winning the national title. Are your batteries recharged enough to do this again? What point do you sort of run out of gas?
Probably when I’m done, in my last year, I’ll run out of gas then. I took some time before (coaching) the Dominican Republic that I’ve never taken before. We got back and I took some time. We went to Boston, were with my daughters, and I took some time. I took some good time this weekend (Sept. 1-2), read about 150 pages of a book I started and kind of kicked back. But I kept coming over to the office. My wife’s like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ We have two workouts that go about 50 minutes, so if I choose to grab a player and work on his shooting, I can do that. So I had Archie over here. We did a little shooting. And I called Nerlens. I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about you, kid. Let’s do this, finish this.’ So I’m just enjoying it. Listen, you know, the pace you go here is the pace you go. You want to coach here, you take a lot of crap. If that’s what I have to do to be the coach here, then I’ll take a lot of crap. I’m the coach at Kentucky. It took me 20 years to get this job. I look back, and I say this all the time: Man, how about if I coached here 20 years? Daggone.
Could you coach here 20 years?
I would’ve loved it back (when he was younger). If you could last here 20 years, then I would be like saying, ‘Why don’t some of these other guys go coach at some of the places I’ve been?’ So the stuff you have to do and the stuff you have to take, it’s just part of this job. But I think I’m ready (for this season). I need to lose a little weight. I gained a little weight. Went and saw a friend of mine today to make him feel good, and as I’m leaving he says he you’ve got (rubs belly). I said, ‘That’s real nice. I make you feel good and I walk out and you’re touching my belly.’
You say the UK coach must take a lot of crap. What is your definition of ‘crap’?
Everybody knows your job better than you. You take it. I say take it, but I don’t listen to it and I don’t hear it. DeWayne (Peevy) will tell you I can’t even barely turn on a computer. And they go, ‘How do you (do all this)?’ Because we talk all the time and the guys I talk to – we don’t put anything out that I don’t first see, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or something on the Internet, on the Web page. But being the coach here, there are a lot of people not rooting for us and me. Would you agree? Would you agree? Am I like being paranoid or is that the truth? I mean, it’s just what it is. There are people that aren’t rooting for you. There are people that aren’t rooting for this school, and you’ve gotta deal with all that. And it’s OK. I mean, right now we’re at that point where: How do you slow this down if you’re those people? How do you slow this down? (Detractors say) ‘We can’t deal with this. DeWayne might seat me in the upper deck if I want to go. How do I deal with this? What do I do? What do I say? What do I write? How do I … I’ve got to slow this down.’ And that’s just part of what this is, and it’s not being paranoid. It’s what it is. And you know what? To be here, you deal with it. Or go somewhere else and coach.
What was your take on CBS’ recent anonymous polls of your coaching colleagues that portrayed you negatively?
I didn’t see them all. DeWayne had called me and said, ‘Hey, this and that.’ Hey, look, (it’s) stupid. The thing that you just don’t want for the profession we’re in, let’s not hurt the profession. You’ve got to be smarter than that, please tell me. When you hurt the profession with the stuff you do, you almost want to say, ‘Why are you in this? Why would you hurt the profession?’ But we don’t know the question that was asked (or) that it was even answered. We don’t know anything other than this guy says this was what he did and this is what they said. Was it said? ‘Well out of these six guys, who do you think?’ Is that how it was asked? Because I know some names were not (included). ‘Well those are my boys. I’m not going to put them in.’ We don’t know anything. But my point was just: Why hurt the profession? One, we don’t talk about other schools in recruiting. I would never damage another coach because it damages our profession. I don’t do it. I think there are a lot of coaches like me, but there are others that I guess choose to do it.
Did you ever take a moment this summer to appreciate that you won a title? You said after the game it was about these kids and maybe down the road I’ll think about myself. Did you ever take that moment?
I’m telling you, you guys think that it meant that much to me. It meant more to my fans and my family and the people that want to say that I’m this or I’m that, or I’m better than this or that, better than this guy or that guy. You know I’m saying. Those people. But the reality of it is, the only time that I’ve kind of – and you’ll think this is crazy, but there was a (fan YouTube) video done about the last three years (of UK basketball). I watched that video because goofball (Peevy) gave it to me. I watched that video and it kind of touched me, like, wow. You think back and you’re like, ‘Man.’ And then I said, ‘Alright, what’s next.’
If you want a (moment), that would be it. But it wasn’t that we had won the national title. It’s that we’ve – you kind of forget that play against Mississippi State, but when I saw it, it just goose-bumped me. Or John Wall’s first (game-winning) shot. We could’ve lost that game. Dudes would’ve all been happy, you know? That shot, we shouldn’t have won that game. And then I can even remember the Stanford stuff. We had no business – and if DeMarcus didn’t foul out, we wouldn’t have won the game. So he had to foul out for us to win. And then you go back to Brandon Knight, when we play at Louisville, and that’s where Josh’s (Harrellson) coming-out party. And then the shots we made down the stretch. How the heck did we beat North Carolina and Ohio State? Tell me. How did we beat those two? Are you crazy? And we did. And we should’ve won the national title (in 2011). It’s crazy. And then last year, the stuff and, you know … So you look back on that in its entirety and you say kind of like, ‘Daggone,’ like, ‘Whoa.’ And then you just say, ‘I don’t want to think about that because we’ve got to move on here and we’ve got other stuff.’
You’ve had three years with the Big Blue Nation. Has the fan base been what you expected when you took the job, and have you embraced the craziness?
Well, first of all, that fan base, 99 percent of them are that’s what they’re into and they’re about Kentucky. Then you have one percent that are – I don’t know what they are. But if you try to lump that together, you lose sight of what this is. This is the greatest fan base. Now, did I understand to what level? No, did not. But when I figured it out, it didn’t take me long. And when I did figure it out, I’m like, ‘You know what? We need to connect with these people.’ It changes who we are and puts us on a page that no one else can touch, because of that fan base. Everything we do is to try to separate from the pack. Well that was the first thing that we did. We’re connecting with these people. We’re going to have an army of people with us, and they’re going to know and we’re going to be transparent. That’s one of the first things.
And then, I did some stuff early and it was by chance. Do you remember what I did when I first took this job – by chance? I did a tour. Do you remember what that tour was? The book tour. That book was written a year and a half, two years earlier. I never knew I was taking this (job). It was by chance. That tour showed me, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it doesn’t matter where I got in this state these people are into this program and it means something to them.’ And then you do Midnight Madness and you’ve got the grandmother, the granddaughter, the grandchild, the great grandchild and they’re all under one tent. Then you start saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a little bigger than I’m thinking.’ That happened.
And they’ve been great at home games. Have we lost yet there? (Nope) OK. So I’m anxious to find out when you spill one, how are they then? And I still tell the story – DeWayne will tell you – I don’t know if we were in the 40s (consecutive home wins) somewhere and I said, ‘DeWayne, this thing, we need to lose one just to get this thing off the deck.’ And I said, ‘By the way, what’s the record (for consecutive home wins at UK)?’ He said, ‘A hundred and twenty-nine.’ And I go, ‘Straight?’ I said, ‘That had to be nine years.’ It’s twelve. How in the world do you win 12 straight years of home games? That means a person was 12 years old and you didn’t lose until he was 24. He went from sixth grade to having two children. That’s sick. But that’s where this thing was.
How did Coach Hall follow this guy (Adolph Rupp)? How in the world does he follow? Telling me he was a little meaner then, huh? But I mean, it’s part of it. It’s part of what you do here. And the last thing, and I’ll just say, ‘What I also learned is when you’re in this seat I’m in, which is you’re the keeper of the tradition. Whoever is this seat is the keeper of the tradition, as much as anything else you do. So if you come in and you think, ‘Well I’m just going to watch tape and coach my team,’ you cheat the position. Which means connecting to the past. If you ever try to eliminate the past, it’s because you wanted the program to start with you, like it was going to be all about you. The reality of it is this thing started in the 30s. You’re the keeper of the tradition. That’s one. And the second part of it is you have a chance to move people for the good or bad by how you act and the things you do. Or you can sit in the office and watch tape. So you almost, if you’re not going to cheat the position, understand you better be the keeper of the tradition and keep people around and connect the dots and bring everybody back in and be a gatherer.
The second thing is you have a chance to do some things like this game we’re doing on the 15th. The best thing will be in the game, if we have three, four, five families from West Liberty that get grants directly from a player. John Wall gives this family a grant whose house was wiped out and they had no insurance. Think about that. Think about that. Or, here’s a veteran that has lost his limbs and this dog is going to be his new way to a new life. It’s a $20,000 dog, and you give it to three or four vets from the state of Kentucky. What? I’m telling you some of the stuff we do, I want to know what other stat you can do it in. I want to know. You tell me. The stuff that goes on here, it just doesn’t happen. When you ask me about the fans, this seat I’m in, that’s stuff I feel strongly about.
You talked about getting a home loss out of the way. Now that it’s over, can you reflect on the significance of dropping last year’s SEC title game?
I don’t even remember it, to be honest. All I know is I got Darius in the game. He took his 17 shots, we got him ready for the NCAA Tournament – which meant if he took 17 shots we probably lost, which we did and we moved on. I don’t even remember – I think the one thing I remember is we were up a few at the end and couldn’t make a shot. That’s the only thing I remember in the game. I don’t remember anything else, other than we were up (and) how in the heck did we not make? And we got good looks if I remember right. We had great looks at the basket and we didn’t make.
This is kind of the epicenter of college basketball this year with Louisville No. 1, Indiana No. 2, Murray State is going to be good. Do you like that this is kind of ground zero for college basketball this year?
Ohio State’s going to be good. Yeah, it’s fine. We’re a national program. I mean, I guess if you live around here it’s great. But this thing for us is the epicenter of college basketball is here. Well, they’re good? That’s great. I don’t care what those teams do. I really don’t. If they play well, I just want them to lose to us. Other than that, I could care less. I don’t follow their teams. I don’t watch the games. I really don’t. I don’t root against them. If I feel myself – if the game’s on and I think I’m rooting against them, I’ll turn the channel because I don’t want that stuff coming back at us. It always does. But for the fans around here, I guess it’s great.
So are you a believer in karma, then, if you say you ‘don’t want that stuff coming back at us’?
I always say that. If you’re a nice person, it’s usually good stuff. If you’re mean and nasty, old and bitter, (stuff) comes back at you, comes back and hits you in the mouth. That’s just how it is.
Did you view Kentucky as the epicenter of college basketball when you were coaching against the Cats, and how badly did you want to beat that?
Well, I liked Tubby (Smith) when I was coaching against him. We beat them one time. But for a while, Kentucky was, when they walked in to recruit, everybody went, ‘Ugh. Kentucky’s walking in.’ And that changed for a while. Then it became, ‘OK, maybe we can get these guys.’ But Kentucky in the families – the kids know three years. When I go in to recruit a player, he only knows (the last) three years. He could care less after. He would know nothing about ’98. He wouldn’t know a player, nothing. Matter of fact, he’d probably know our team a few years ago and before that he probably couldn’t name one player on their team. But that’s not just Kentucky. It’s any team.
But their families understand the history of this place. The 2K game means something. It did. It did then. And we knew, we scheduled, believe me. We needed to get there before Carolina, and we knew it. I said, ‘Can we win these games to make sure we get there before they do?’ I didn’t want it to have to be us playing them – oh, my gosh – for the 2K. That’s all we needed. But this is a unique place. The expectations are high. You’re under a magnifying glass. Stuff that goes on, on other campuses, psssh. If it goes on here, it’s a big deal. Goes on over there, ‘Eh, he didn’t mean it. The guy walked into the kid’s fist.’ But if it goes on here, I’m telling you it’s huge. It’s all part of what it is.
I’ll just leave you with this: The whole thing here, it’s a players-first program. It’s not changing. Every decision I make is based on what’s right for these kids. That’s not changing. Everything I do is based on them, and if I do right by them and keep doing right by them, they’ll drag us where we want to go. Now I’ll say this: This team will drag us maybe as far as it can go and that may not be what we all want, but I look back and say, ‘Hey, I feel great about that.’ I think of the team two years ago and the first team I had here. Those two teams, both of them had a chance to win both national titles. To be honest, you all may say we should’ve won it in 2010, we should’ve won it then. Well if we don’t go 0 for 20 against West Virginia then maybe we do. Because I think we were better than the other teams. And then that next year, where you didn’t think and we ended up going farther, and we should’ve won it then. Man, that’s just how it is here. You just want to be up at bat.
I think we’ve got good kids, but it’s going to be hard. This is one that it’s not going to be as easy as it looks to figure stuff out how we play. That’ll be the challenge of it. But that’s exciting. People will say to me, ‘Doesn’t that drive you crazy to have a new team?’ I say, ‘No, it’s exciting.’ I mean, think about it. You wake up every day and your whole thought is, ‘How do I make this better for these guys? How do I figure this stuff out?’ I say this: Guys staying with you three years, they don’t learn to hate you after one, maybe two, but they do after three and four.