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Calipari Says His Players Have Not Given Up

Jan 9, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers guard Sharife Cooper (2) tries for a contested shot during during the game between Auburn and Kentucky at Auburn Arena. Photo by Shanna Lockwood/AU Athletics

By LARRY VAUGHT

Maybe it was talking about the likely season-ending ankle injury that Terrence Clarke has that started John Calipari on an emotional explanation of what this 5-13 season has been like for him and his players.

Or maybe it was just the stress, frustration and/or disappointment of the season that has worn Calipari down.

First, he talked about Clarke.

“He’s here. He’s doing the physical therapy. He’s going to class. He’s being a good teammate that way. Could you imagine if you guys were him? Like we’re not even talking about –- here’s a kid’s career flashing before his eyes,” Calipari said.

“Here’s a kid that played early, hurt and tried to bust through it and couldn’t. (He) Took the time he thought could heal, and the doctors look and say, ‘Nope. You cannot play.’ What they saw. The kid and I both cried. I cried too. He had tears coming down his face. I was crying before. He said, ‘What? What? What? Coach talk to me. What?’ I couldn’t get it out that you know, ‘You’re going to be out with very little possibility that you’re going to be able to play for us throughout this year because of the time.’”

Calipari knows this is “no feeling sorry” for him or the UK program because of the success both have had for years. But that doesn’t mean 13 losses are easy to accept.

“Am I at times frustrated that we’re not winning more? Yeah. I get frustrated on a missed shot. Yeah. But look, you know what? We’re all thrown in situations and I’ve been thrown in this situation. My responsibility are these kids. How do I respond to this where they can learn too? Like, as leader when things go bad, how do we deal with this?” Calipari said.

“Me personally, how am I dealing with it? What am I doing? I asked them (players). Two days ago, tell me how are you dealing with this? How are you dealing with all of the other stuff? And I went around the room. I’m talking to many of my coaching friends around the country and we’re all having the same (issues). Everybody is tired because of the emotional stuff in this, trying to keep your kids safe, trying to figure out after a pause what happens, how do you play? Having them not being able to be together and either commiserate or celebrate?

“They can’t be together. If they’re together and someone is sick it shuts everything down. No families. No contact. No girlfriends. No campus where they can connect with a college professor or other students. I respect these kids.”

Calipari said he was in his 20’s last time he coached a team with a losing record and that team has no chance at the end to be successful. Calipari still believes UK does — if there is a SEC Tournament for them to win and get a NCAA Tournament berth.

“We’ve just got to figure it out together and I’ve got to continue to try and motivate, and push, and hug. After practice yesterday, I got on one of the guys. I got on him pretty hard. He waited by the door that I go out because he kind of bowed his neck when I got on him, and I was walking out he comes over. ‘Coach, I’m sorry.’ And he hugged me, and I hugged him, and he squeezed me, and I squeezed him,” Calipari said.

“And I’m just thinking, this stuff. I know we just think, well here’s who it is, here’s who’s winning and here’s who’s losing, here’s bracketology. This is uncharted waters and all of us coaches are exhausted trying to stay on top of all of it, and here, there’s an added thing. You’re not winning and now all of a sudden, it’s out of the woodwork. All I can tell you is; I’m going to keep loving these kids, keep coaching them, keep holding them accountable.

“You can be aggressive when they know you love them. You (fans) out there can’t be aggressive with them. They’re not listening to you. But they’ll listen to me and I can be aggressive, and I can yell some, and I can hug them, kiss them after a game. I mean this is different. This all of us together trying to walk through something none of us have been through.”

Calipari said he was not making excuses and the record tells what kind of team UK has and what he’s been like as a coach this year.

“All I’m saying is I’m not giving up, and if anybody wants to give up. I’m fine. I’m not going to be mad. If anybody wants to take off on them or me, that’s fine. I’m not mad. It’s what it is. I’m not talking down to anybody. I’m not. All I’m saying is my job is not to deal with that. It’s to look at these 12 kids and say, ‘How can I make sure I’m looking after someone’s child? How do I help them play their best?’” Calipari said.

“I’m with them every day. I know who has got the confidence to go in there when things are going bad and who doesn’t. But I can say this, this group hasn’t given up on anything.”

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