The Calipari-Self Revolution: Letting Players Make Plays

By: By Gary Parrish, Senior Writer
By: By Gary Parrish, Senior Writer

SAN ANTONIO -- Bill Self stood there late Saturday after his team had just destroyed North Carolina and acknowledged that at times he felt like he didn't have "much control from the sideline." He also said he was having fun watching his "players make plays" and that he didn't want to "corral" them.

He sounded a lot like John Calipari, actually.

"I'm copying all his stuff," Self said with a smile. "Really, I told him all that. He's copying me."

Naturally, everybody laughed.

Self laughed.

I laughed.

The other people around laughed.

It was a funny moment in advance of what should be a fun NCAA tournament title game that will highlight something that needs to be remembered next time people talk about the art of coaching and what is important and what is not.

It'll be a lesson, because when Memphis and Kansas tip off at 9:21 p.m. ET on Monday what you will see are two teams coached by two men who understand what works best in this era of college basketball, two men who understand what got them here and two men who aren't delusional about it.

Call it the Calipari/Self three-step formula to success.

Step 1: Recruit great players.
Step 2: Give them the freedom to be great.
Step 3: Collect wins and get rich in the process.

"(A coach's job) is to put players in a position so that they can have success," Calipari said. "This style gives us our best chance of success."

So what is Calipari's style?

It's spacing the floor, isolating his players and letting them beat the other team's players one-on-one. And guess what? It works. And do you know why it works? It works because Calipari's players are usually better than the other team's players.

Same goes for Self.

He doesn't share offensive and defensive philosophies with Calipari; they are different in that way. But what they do share is the understanding that basketball games are won by basketball players and if you have the best players it's actually smart to get the hell out of the way every once in a while.

Calipari does this and admits it without hesitation.

He teaches principles and then "unleashes" players.

That's his word, by the way. Not mine.

"The one thing you have to do coaching this way is you have to ... if you have 10 ropes that you're holding onto, you have to give up about three and just hold onto seven because there's more freedom (for the players) to make choices," Calipari said. "You have to count on your team to be unselfish, you have to count on your team being able to make great decisions on the run and you have to understand that what makes it good is how they feel unleashed."

None of this is to suggest Calipari and Self aren't good on the chalk board.

Let me make that perfectly clear -- I don't buy into that notion.

I've seen both run practices, watched film with both and talked basketball with both. Trust me, they know way more than their critics like to admit. Bad coaches, they are not. But in this business people like to attach labels, and the easiest label to put on Calipari and Self is the label of great recruiter.

Problem is, that label tends to set coaches up for failure because if they have great players and fall short of greatness then the blame falls squarely on their shoulders. Then they suddenly become average coaches while coaches who overachieve with average recruits are deemed great.

I have never understood it.

I think getting great recruits is the most important part of coaching, not drawing up plays. Likewise, I don't think anybody who can't sign great recruits can be great at this level. And if you want to disagree, that's fine. But then I'll challenge you to a fantasy game in which you can have the five best "pure coaches" you want while I take the five best recruiters.

Then we'll look up in four years and see who has the better results, and I'd be willing to bet anything that my guys are more successful than your guys, regardless of what kind of offense or defense or inbounds plays my guys run.

Which brings me back to Calipari and Self.

"Coach Self and Coach Calipari just let their players play," said Kansas senior Russell Robinson. "They are coaching, but they are also letting their players make plays. And when you have talented guys who are making plays and coaches who are letting them make plays then it works well for both parties."

Anybody who doesn't believe that should tune in to CBS on Monday at 9:21 p.m. ET.

That's when the NCAA tournament title game is scheduled to tip.

It'll feature two coaches letting great players make plays.

And that's great coaching by any measuring stick.

Or at least it seems that way these days.

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