There’s a debate to be had about just how dire the situation was for John Calipari at Kentucky after last season, but this much is certain: When you’ve won just one NCAA Tournament game since 2019, something has to give. And to his credit, based on the people he hired this offseason and the style his team played this summer at the GLOBL JAM in Canada, Calipari seems to understand that. Anyone searching for signs that the 64-year-old Hall of Famer is still driven and willing to evolve can take comfort in his three most recent staff additions.
With KT Turner leaving to be head coach at UT Arlington, video coordinator Andrew Ortelli leaving for a job at Temple and the NCAA allowing extra on-court coaching positions this year, Calipari took the opportunity to bring balance to a staff that was heavy on recruiting but light on development and detailed game-planning. So he hired John Welch, a longtime NBA assistant DeMarcus Cousins lovingly refers to as Johnny Workouts; Chuck Martin, a former Division I head coach who also worked on staffs at Memphis, Indiana, South Carolina and Oregon; and video coordinator Kevin Butty, who cut his teeth in a top-notch San Diego State program before working in the Lakers and Rockets organizations.
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“I think John really got this right,” said Tom Crean, the former Indiana, Marquette and Georgia coach. “In 22 years as a head coach, Chuck is definitely one of the best assistants I’ve ever worked with, and he takes a backseat to no one as a person. He is the real deal in so many areas. He gets a lot of credit for recruiting, and he’s been outstanding with that, but I don’t think people truly understand what a good coach he is. He’s very, very good in development, whether it’s with an individual, in small groups or when it comes to implementing things in practice. He’s one of the best scouts I’ve been with, tremendous when it comes to thoroughness and detail. He looks for things — and he’s an original thinker, not a groupthink guy.
“He’s not somebody who’ll just tell you what you want to hear, but he’s really good at making you feel like his better idea was your own idea.”
That last part is critically important. All this new blood and vast experience on Kentucky’s staff won’t mean a thing if Calipari is not willing to hear and heed their suggestions. In that way, Martin might be the most consequential of the recent hires, because Calipari trusts him. In their three years together at Memphis, the Tigers went 71-6 and played for a national championship, and Martin has worked for three of Calipari’s closest friends in the business: Crean at Indiana, Frank Martin at South Carolina and UK staffer Bruiser Flint at both UMass and Drexel.
“There’s a comfort level,” Martin said, “and I’ve grown a lot over the years since I worked for Cal. I think he kept an eye on me, and I’d like to think I’ve done a good job. I know the guys on this staff (he went to high school with fellow assistant Orlando Antigua), and that’s really important, just everyone being comfortable and understanding what their roles are. There’s no ego. I’m not some 30-year-old guy trying to prove something. I understand what my role is, and I’m going to support the other guys and support Cal as best I can.”
Welcome our new assistant coach Chuck Martin!
📝 https://t.co/omS8EQxQns pic.twitter.com/KKWltEhmLW
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) July 6, 2023
Above all, what Calipari badly needed to add to his staff this offseason was a group of grinders — basketball junkies who live in the gym, either finding new players or improving the current team, and the film room. The way former bosses and peers talk about each of the new hires, Calipari went 3-for-3 in that department.
“I used to joke that he had the biggest office in the country, because most of the time he was walking around our practice facility on the phone,” Crean said of Martin. “He’d be out there pacing and talking and moving his hands around, and he’d wave at you like, ‘I’m getting things done.’ He’s the real deal, man. He really, really is. He’s going to make a difference for John. He’s a relationship guy, a connector, a personality guy — Chuck is one of those people who never have a bad day, stays even keel, just has a joy in his life and a spirit that makes you feel better — but at the end of the day, he’s just a heckuva workhorse. He’s extremely proactive. He’ll address a problem, get to the bottom of something, have a meeting, go see somebody, spend time with a player, 90 percent of the time before you even ask him to do it.”
The same is true of Welch, a dribble-drive disciple who is assisting Calipari with offensive game-planning and installation but is also revered in NBA circles for his player-development skills. Five-star freshman Justin Edwards has already raved about how much Welch has helped improve his jump shot.
“I wanted a workout guy that was a coach, that loved being in the gym,” Calipari said. “They call him Johnny Gymrat. That’s what he wants to do and that’s where he wants to be.”
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Former Brooklyn Nets head coach Lionel Hollins said Welch “did our game prep and scouts” and then drilled players on specific scenarios within the offense — both individually and in smaller groups — like what the point guard’s options are based on how a defense attacks their pick-and-roll. “Drilling those scenarios that way is so helpful to have players know beforehand where the next move is,” Hollins said.
“That’s my guy,” said Cousins, who had an All-NBA season working with Welch in Sacramento. “He’s going to be the hardest worker in the gym — and that’s players included. His training programs are incredible.”
Kentucky’s new video coordinator is cut from similar cloth. As a graduate assistant at San Diego State, which went 30-2 while he was there in 2019-20, Butty became “like family,” to longtime Aztecs assistant Dave Velasquez. Together, they regularly worked out stars Jalen McDaniels and Malachi Flynn, among others.
“We were in the gym at 7 a.m. every day with Jalen, and Kevin was never late, always brought great vibes and energy to the workout,” Velasquez said. “You know, 7 a.m. every day can become tedious, but he was always there. Malachi Flynn was a maniac, would shoot two or three times a day, and Kevin was always there for him, morning or night. He just loves it. Never feels like a job to him. And you can’t teach that to someone. You either have that or you don’t. That’s the culture we have here, all about the grind, having the self-discipline ot do it every single day, which is easy to say and hard to do. That’s the only way we do it here, though, and Kevin fit right in.”
Butty jumped to the NBA two years ago as a coaching associate with the Lakers, where he assisted in scouting and on-court development. Then to the Rockets’ organization as a G League assistant last season. That’s where he developed a close relationship with former Kentucky star TyTy Washington, who recommended Butty to his old coach. Calipari said, “Kevin comes to us highly recommended” in the official UK announcement.
“He had unbelievable relationships with our guys and the players at Kentucky are going to love him,” Velasquez said. “The coaches will be impressed by him. He’s just all basketball all the time. Loves to play it, loves to teach it, loves to study it. He loves cutting film, loves learning the game, loves doing the work.”
With seven freshmen, two sophomores and only two veterans on the 2023-24 roster, staring down something of a must-win season, Calipari needed a staff that can squeeze every ounce of potential out of its young talent by March. He needed to add people who are equal parts capable and conscientious — and appears he’s done just that.
(Photo of, from left to right, John Welch, John Calipari and Orlando Antigua: Chet White / UK Athletics)