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Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out


Edited by Scott Moyers

New York Times Bestseller

The legendary—and legendarily candid—University of Kentucky basketball coach opens up as he never has before about what separates good teams and coaches from bad ones and about the things that are seriously awry in today’s college game.

In Players First, John Calipari relates for the first time anywhere his experiences over his first four years coaching the Kentucky Wildcats, college basketball’s most fabled program, from the doldrums to a national championship, drawing lessons about leadership, character, and the path to personal and collective victory.

At its core, Calipari’s coaching philosophy centers on keeping his focus on the players—what they need to get the best out of themselves and one another. He is beloved by his players for being utterly honest with them, not by making promises, but by making commitments that he always keeps. He knows that in this age, they come to Kentucky to prepare for the NBA; every year he gets players who in a previous era would have gone directly into the pros from high school but now have to play college basketball for one year. Calipari has fought against this system, but he has to play within it, and so he does, better than anyone.

The result is an extraordinary leadership challenge: every year Coach Cal gets a handful of eighteen-year-old kids who have been in a bubble for the previous four years at least, filled with hype about their own greatness, and most come to Kentucky feeling sure that they will play for their coach only for seven months before they go on to greater glory. Every year, he has to reinvent his team. After his 2012 NCAA championship, it was particularly dramatic; he lost his first six players in the NBA Draft, meaning that someone who couldn’t even start for Kentucky was a draft pick.

The overall record at Kentucky, and for his career, puts Calipari in the pantheon of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. Bold, funny, and truthful, like Coach Calipari himself, Players First is truly the first deep reckoning with the meaning of his experiences and the gifts of insight they offer.



Praise

“If you are a college basketball fan like I am, you’ll understand why I’ve long admired John Calipari’s leadership style. While no coach treasures a win more than John, this terrific book reveals his greater purpose—to lead his young players to better lives, and then challenge them to give back to others.” President Bill Clinton

“John Calipari tells his players: Embrace the work. Embrace the sweat. Embrace the pain. I say: Embrace this book. It’s basketball at its finest.” —Harvey Mackay, author of The New York Times #1 bestseller Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive

“I’ve been working with Coach Cal and his teams for about 20 years now and have loved every minute of it. Two things have drawn me to Coach Cal over the years: one, he chases excellence and greatness, and two, I love the way he cares about his players and treats the people around him. Players First gives a very honest picture of what’s important to Coach Cal and why he’s so great at taking young athletes, developing them into mature players and helping them reach their potential.” —Bob Rotella, sports psychologist and author of Golf is Not a Game of Perfect

“I loved playing for Cal. He tried to put players in a position to play to their strengths, but he held guys responsible for their performance. We all benefited from his approach. As I read Players First, it brought back memories of how he coached us and why we enjoyed playing for him so much.” —Sam Cassell, three-time NBA champion and current Washington Wizards assistant coach

Players First is filled with so many nuggets of wisdom, I found myself highlighting and taking notes as I read. Writing like a loving but honest parent, Calipari shares stories of how he learned to inspire greatness from his players and how they pushed themselves to achieve more than they thought possible. A truly human account of what it takes to win, Players First proves that winning has nothing to do with the score, it has to do with the people.” —Simon Sinek, optimist and author of Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last

“Players First captures why so many kids want to play for John Calipari and why so many mothers and fathers ask him to take their boys and mold them into young men. Through stories and examples, Coach Cal brings out his most important teaching tool, which is servant leadership. Teaching these young people to care more about others than themselves is what sets his program apart and what sets this book apart from other coaches’ books. It’s a must-read.” —John C. Maxwell, New York Times bestselling author and speaker

“I’ve been an admirer and friend of John Calipari for over thirty years—ever since his coaching days at the University of Massachusetts, where I was a professor. I’ve watched Cal and his wife, Ellen, treat his players as family and help bring out their best, not only on the court but also in their future lives as spouses, parents, friends, business leaders, and contributors to their communities. Players First is not just for sports fans—it’s for anyone who is open to learn that viewing your people as your number one customer is the key to long-term success. Wins and profits are the byproducts of putting your players/people first. I love this book—and so will you and the people you care about and count on at home, at work, and in the community where you live. Thanks, Cal.” —Ken Blanchard, coauthor of The One Minute Manager®, Leading at a Higher Level, and TrustWorks!

Excerpt

In my office at the University of Kentucky, I can stand in front of a huge window and look right down on the hardwood floor of our practice court. I can also see the eight banners representing eight national championships—starting with 1948, the first of Adolph Rupp’s four titles, to 2012, the one that I added to the collection.

One day I was looking through that window with John Robic, a Pittsburgh kid like me and one of my assistant coaches going all the way back to the University of Massachusetts, which ranked 295th among 300 NCAA Division 1 teams when we took over. We turned to each other and both said a version of the same thing: Can you believe we’re coaching at this place?

Kentucky is college basketball’s legendary program. It has the most wins and the most devoted fan base. (I call them crazy; they watch more game film than I do.) I respect the hell out of the tradition—I’m lucky to be a part of it and I’ve got the best job in basketball—but I don’t do what I do for the commonwealth of Kentucky, for the university, for the legacy of the program, or for the greater glory of Big Blue Nation. There was a time I coached partly for myself—for status, respect, money, wins. But I don’t do that anymore, either. Good for those coaches who get to seven hundred, eight hundred, or even a thousand wins, but I’m not staying in it that long. I can promise you my record will not be on my tombstone.

I coach for the names on the back of the jersey—not just the front. My players. They’re sent to me by their fathers, their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunts—whoever in this world raised them and loves them. Others look at their NBA bodies and consider them lucky. Future millionaires, just stopping through before they cash in. That’s not what I see. They’re kids, some of them as young as seventeen. They all need me in a different way. Some want my affection, others my approval. It’s a burden to be responsible for other people’s children, sometimes a heavy burden.

I go to Mass every morning. It’s how I start my day and it’s my moment of peace, almost meditation. If I’m struggling with a player, it’s where I ask myself: How would I want my own son treated?

But I’m also a sinner, as we all are. If you come after one of my players, I come after you twice as hard. If you kill one of mine, I burn your village. It’s the Italian in me. I’m not proud of that, but it’s who I am.