Last weekend, the Kentucky Wildcats scratched their way to victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats cruising to their 36th win of the season. But the Cats are still hungry, eager to claw their way through the NCAA Tournament and cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
At the center of this championship-caliber team is head coach John Calipari. Known for his “one-and-done” recruiting style, Calipari has sent 19 players to the NBA in his last 5 seasons at Kentucky and is sure to send another 3+ this year. On top of that, this year’s squad has 9 McDonald’s All-Americans. To put that in perspective, no team in the NBA had 9 All-Americans on its roster at the end of the 2014 regular season.
But recruiting the best players is easy, especially when you’re winning. Rather what’s more impressive is Calipari’s ability to get a group of highly-recruited high school seniors to sacrifice individual stats and fame for the common good of the team. Even more impressive, is his ability to do this year in and year out given he loses 3-4 players each year to the NBA.
So how does he do it? Well, it all begins with building trust. This process begins well before the team’s first practice when Calipari and his staff begin identifying talented high-school athletes. When Calipari recruits players, he tells them what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. According to Karl-Anthony Towns, starting center for the Wildcats, “He always tells you, you’re not guaranteed anything. You aren’t guaranteed a starting spot. You aren’t guaranteed to be playing any minutes. You aren’t guaranteed anything. You have to earn it here.”
After filling out his roster, Calipari takes a “Players First” approach to coaching. Coach Cal is a servant leader who recognizes all the wins, and the championship banners, and the trophies aren’t about him; rather they are about the players he serves. Perhaps the best evidence of this came after the UK won the NCAA Championship in 2012. After the game, Calipari said “This is not about me. This is about these 13 players. This is about the Big Blue Nation.” Coach Cal is quick to shift praise to his team and the fans who support them. Furthermore, Coach Cal makes decisions based on the best interests of his players. Many criticize Cal’s “one and done” recruiting style and accuse him of transforming UK into nothing more than a springboard to the NBA. Calipari doesn’t see it that way. Rather, he believes his role as a leader is to develop and mentor his players and assist them in accomplishing their goals.
As business leaders, we often place a great deal of importance on identifying and recruiting the most talented individuals to our organizations. However, such an exercise is useless if we can’t get these individuals to come together as a team. What’s more important is our role as leaders to motivate and inspire these individuals to work together to achieve greatness. There are few who understand and embrace this role as much as Coach John Calipari.