Why Coach John Calipari’s “Players First” Philosophy is Spot-On

Although much-admired and well-loved by University of Kentucky basketball fans, UK Coach John Calipari has been stirring up a little controversy in Lexington recently. In the past few weeks, he has twice told the media he would rather place players in the NBA than win a national basketball championship.

Oh, the shame of it!

This idea is actually nothing new for Coach Calipari. He’s been talking about it in one form or another since the day he placed five players in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft. He called it “the biggest day in the history of the Kentucky program.”

Coach Calipari’s “Players First” philosophy, which places a priority on player development, even over team achievement, also shines through in his willingness to work with “one and done” players. The constant recruiting and teaching that must take place when players shuttle through the UK basketball program at a rapid pace drains the time and attention of Calipari and his staff. But they shoulder on because it enables them to meet the needs and affect the dreams of two to three times more athletes than the average college basketball coaching staff.

At the heart of this mini-controversy over Calipari’s “Players First” philosophy is some emerging truth about the changing nature of college for all students, not just elite athletes. Simply put, nobody goes to college anymore for the experience. They don’t go to college to learn new things, explore interesting ideas, make new friends, build character, mature, or get the so-called “liberal arts education.” They don’t even go to college to win a national championship.

Today, students go to college to get a ticket to a well-paying career. Period. Nobody is interested in spending $50,000-$100,000 (or much more) to make themselves a better person. They can enter the military for that. Or the Peace Corp. Or the ministry. Those pursuits don’t take your money. Some even pay YOU to become a great person — “the best you can be.” Today’s college students are looking for something far less noble, but much more practical. They want jobs.

Calipari gets it. While he appropriately appreciates and respects the UK fan base, the university administration, and even his own personal aspirations to win athletic contests and championships, they are not what comes FIRST. In Calipari’s world, players come first. It should be the same for all people who say they care about children, especially those who get paid to do so.

We could argue all day about whether the glories of a liberal arts education were EVER a reason for young people to give up so much of their time and money. But, in today’s economic realities, colleges need to get over their high-minded ideas about any worth they have apart from their ability to place students in well-paying jobs. Other career preparation models are looming on the horizon, many of them supported by our nation’s most prestigious employers, and they are ready to “disrupt” higher education with a vengeance. Colleges and universities—places that pride themselves on building brains—better get smart enough themselves to stay one step ahead of the people and programs poised to replace them. They better get at least as smart as a basketball coach from Kentucky.

Calipari is being pragmatic, relevant, and correct when he promotes his “Players First” philosophy. When he says the careers of his players are what comes first and matters most to him, he is speaking the language of the only two things that should really matter in higher education — the students and the markets. If colleges aren’t meeting the needs and desires of students, or they are doing it apart from the demands of today’s markets, then they will ultimately fade away and fail. Simply put, colleges will survive going forward ONLY if they prove vital to the end game, which is job placement.

At the University of Kentucky, students are playing basketball to prepare for a career in the NBA. At the same time, the NBA is looking to Kentucky to fill its rosters. It’s a perfect fit, an example of how universities should be working closely with professional communities of all types to understand their needs and then train and prepare students accordingly.

This past season, Calipari held a pre-season combine for NBA teams to view his team. More than 90 NBA scouts and front office executives showed up. Those that missed it could watch it on television. Some people whined that such events would destroy amateur athletics. But here’s what I want to know: Why do we value amateur athletics so much in college anyway? Isn’t the purpose of college to prepare individuals to be professionals, not amateurs? Or are colleges only allowed to prepare students to be professional businessmen, teachers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, artists, etc. What is it about professional athletics that makes universities work so hard to make sure students remain amateurs?

To promote the legitimacy of professional athletics as a career option, the University of Kentucky should strongly consider two bold moves. First, it should establish a sports performance major at UK. This will get the university officially on record as an institution committed to moving elite athletes from amateur status to professional status. Second, UK should  reconsider its relationship with the NCAA. It should begin a serious discussion with all interested parties about a new (or improved) university athletic association whose sole mission is NOT to keep university athletes competing at the lowest levels possible for as long as possible with as little compensation as possible. The amateur mission of the NCAA is at odds with the career aspirations of many student athletes and completely out-of-sync with the overall purpose of higher education in the first place.

There’s a lot of angst among colleges and universities right now because everyone knows student and market demands are quickly changing. At schools where college athletics are merely extra-curricular—-a hobby for players and entertainment for fans—the future remains unclear. Will amateur athletic programs even survive?

Calipari has gotten way out in front of that question by not permitting Kentucky Basketball to be irrelevant and amateurish. He has not allowed his program to be wholly defined by the results of a amateur basketball tournament and has insisted on measuring the success of the program by the number of players getting jobs in the NBA. He will not let the general public, even his beloved Big Blue Nation, forget that he will always put the players need to develop and succeed at the next level ahead of the fan base’s need to win and be entertained.

In doing so, he has been responsible and right. He’s also been incredibly successful at his mission. After all, is there any college program, of any kind, at any place, getting a higher percentage of students to the highest levels of their chosen career fields at a higher rate of speed?

If the nation’s colleges and universities hope to be even half as successful as Calipari and UK Basketball at meeting the career aspirations of its students, they should start putting “students first.” If they do, their futures will become a lot less precarious.

Until next time…be fearless.