There used to be an eerily apt comparison between former Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith and former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer during the backend of their careers. Add John Calipari to that short list of coaches who once had loyal fan bases turn against them.
The three have another thing in common. They’ve all won a championship at their respective schools. For some fan bases in a different era, that meant a lifelong pass, especially for smaller programs. Kentucky basketball and Tennessee football aren’t those types of programs. They expect championship(s) as in plural, not singular. One banner simply won’t do for those elite programs.
Tennessee’s fan base began to turn on Fulmer in 2005 and almost completely jumped ship in 2008 despite that national championship in 1998. Kentucky’s fan base is doing the same with Calipari, just like they did with Smith.
Calipari won a national championship in 2012 and has had great success – by most other programs’ standards. However, six final four appearances and one championship in 15 years aren’t enough for Kentucky fans. Fulmer finished in the top four three times in his tenure. However, the Vols slipped after they finished No. 4 in 2001. Calipari is following that path. He hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2015.
A championship will buy you time. In basketball, a Final Four will buy you less time at a school like Kentucky. Calipari’s recent Kentucky talented teams, which haven’t been championship worthy in March, have turned the tide against him because they haven’t won a national title. Once that’s lost, it’s tough to get back.
One could argue that the Vols were never really on stable ground after 2005. Adding offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe produced a surge in 2006 and 2007, but that was just a short-term fix. Cutcliffe, a longtime coach under Fulmer in the 1990’s, was always looking for another job and accepted the head coaching position at Duke in 2008 after helping the Vols rebuild in the mid-2000’s.
That brief return to glory years wasn’t enough to save Fulmer in 2008, and it appears that Calipari may be headed in the same direction. Kentucky fans won’t be happy with another Elite 8 – or even a Final Four run. The Wildcats want championships.
Fulmer and Calipari are similar in another way. Both assembled fantastic talent through their careers at Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively. You have to have talent to win at an elite level, but if you don’t win titles and those players go onto professional greatness, well, it looks like they weren’t coached very well in college.
The difference between Fulmer and Calipari is that Fulmer fought and clawed to keep the Tennessee football job. He wasn’t considered an elite coach in the college football community, so he didn’t have another top-tier program like Tennessee to jump to. Calipari has more options and probably less patience for the Kentucky administration.
Calipari can land almost anywhere and create a perennial NCAA Tournament team or better thanks to his connections with shoe companies and those that handle top recruits. In other words, it won’t take much for Calipari to take a buyout, hit the door and build a great program elsewhere. In fact, it seems just a matter of time until that happens. On the basketball front, that’s good for the Vols. Calipari is a consistently good coach that will provide a strong challenge year in and year out.
Kentucky has proven that they can hire some real goofballs to take that job in the past. If Calipari exits after this season, that has to be viewed as a win for the Vols. Just imagine if Kentucky basketball went though what Tennessee football did after they fired Fulmer. A dormant decade for the ‘Cats? It’s happened before and it could happen again.