Kentucky brass buying into Cal more
Posted: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 4:58 pm
By: By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — When Kentucky officials met with coach John Calipari two years ago to talk about the program’s vacant head coaching position, they came armed with a sales pitch.
Turns out, they didn’t need one.
Instead, it was Calipari who ended up doing the selling. When university President Lee Todd and athletic director Mitch Barnhart outlined their vision for returning the Wildcats to glory, Calipari cut them short and assured them he was the man for the job.
“He said, ‘This is it: Notre Dame football and Kentucky basketball, and I want to be a part of Kentucky,’” Todd said. “I knew then we had the right man.”
Standing in a giddy postgame locker room on Sunday night after Calipari led the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 1998, Todd believes now more than ever the school made the right call.
“The more I see him on a daily basis, and (the way) he coaches and teaches players, the more proud I am of the decision we made,” Todd said.
Even if it came at a steep cost — eight years and $31.65 million — and a bit of a gamble. Calipari’s resume is brilliant but also pockmarked with a couple of NCAA splotches that are hard to ignore.
Kentucky plays Connecticut Saturday in Houston. In Calipari’s previous visits to the Final Four, with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, were later vacated by the NCAA for rule violations. Though Calipari was not found at fault in either instance, the stigma is something he bristles at.
And it’s something that follows him wherever he goes.
Even as Calipari celebrated with his players on the floor of the Prudential Center on Sunday evening after joining Rick Pitino as the only men’s coach in NCAA history to lead three schools to the Final Four, a fan stood 20 feet from the floor and taunted Calipari, repeatedly shouting “it will just be vacated.”
The next week will give Calipari the stage he’s coveted for much of his career. He’s spent most of his 25-plus seasons in coaching as an outsider who thrived finding success in unlikely places. Now he’s winning at a place where it’s demanded by one of the most passionate fan bases in the country.
Calipari remains adamant that he’s done nothing wrong, but knows there is a faction that remains unsatisfied with his answers.
“We will all be judged 50 years from now,” Calipari said. “The good news is, there will be no emotion to it where someone wants to be nasty and mean; it won’t be here. It will be here’s the facts, here’s what he’s done.”
All Calipari has done at Kentucky is win and found a way to prosper in a seat that wore down Tubby Smith and chewed up Billy Gillispie in two short years.
Though he said during his introductory press conference two years ago he didn’t want to be an emperor, he’s reveled in the spotlight coaching at Kentucky provides.
He’s made Kentucky basketball fun again. Superfan Ashley Judd has returned to Rupp Arena. LeBron James has stopped by for a visit. And Jay-Z strolled into the locker room after the Wildcats secured their 14th Final Four appearance to congratulate the somewhat awestruck players.
Where Smith grew reticent and Gillispie outright rebelled against the role of ambassador that comes with the job, the 52-year-old Calipari has embraced it with a fervor of someone half his age.
His infectious energy — and his ability to lure the top high school players to Lexington — has returned the Wildcats to a perch the program has long considered its birthright.
And he’s done it with a team that was supposed to be a bridge between last year’s “once in a lifetime” group that featured five first-round NBA draft picks and next year’s incoming class that could be nearly as deep.
Even as Kentucky struggled through a bumpy regular season, failing to deliver in close games on the road, he remained steadfast in his belief that the Wildcats would mature.
When the NCAA ruled freshman center Enes Kanter permanently ineligible for accepting more than the minimum benefits while playing for a Turkish club team two years ago, Calipari made Kanter a student assistant coach and decided to tighten his rotation and rely almost exclusively on six players, three of them freshmen.
He repeated “I like my team” so often it was as if he was trying to convince the Wildcats it was true even as he maniacally prowled the sidelines trying to find the right answers.
Kentucky has found them in March and heads into Saturday’s matchup with Connecticut — which as NCAA problems of its — on a 10-game winning streak.
There will be plenty of chatter about Calipari’s path between now and the tip-off of the most important game at Kentucky in more than a decade. He’s ready for it.
“I would tell you I hope people look and say, ’boy he does a good job with his kids and they get better and they play and they go on to good careers, whether it is basketball or business or education,”’ Calipari said. “And if I am lucky enough to do more on the basketball court, fine. If I don’t win another game on the basketball court, that would be fine too.”
Maybe for Calipari, but not the university that dug deep in its pockets to lure him away from Memphis.
Barnhart, who opted not to pursue Calipari when Smith left in 2007 and hired Gillispie instead, knew he couldn’t get the next hire wrong.
While aware of the potential criticism Calipari’s hire would bring, particularly at a school rocked by scandal in the 1980s, Barnhart vowed the university had no reason to doubt Calipari’s integrity.
Or his ability to deliver.
Two years after the Wildcats made him the highest paid coach in the country, the investment seems worth it.
“You play at Kentucky to raise banners, and I’m happy we did this, I’m happy for these guys, because no one gave them a chance,” Barnhart said. “John has done a tremendous job of developing players, and you can see that.”