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 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.