The New Coach in Town
John Calipari embraces the Big Blue Nation challenge with his dribble drive motion offense
"Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability."
Those words come from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. And that sentence might just sum up why John Calipari embraced the challenge of leaving the University of Memphis in late March to lead college basketball’s winningest program at the University of Kentucky.
It’s a place where the bar of expectations is set at its highest level—not to win the title every year, mind you, but to at least be a part of the discussion. It’s a place where the spotlight can be withering and the demands for one’s time seemingly endless. But it is also a place with boundless support and all of the resources and assets a coach would need to achieve his goals.
John Calipari appears uniquely qualified to not only handle that environment but flourish in it.
“I think particularly at the time he came along in 2009, he was absolutely the guy,” says Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy, a veteran observer of the college roundball scene. “In 2007 when things were less damaged, I honestly thought Tom Crean was the right person for the job. But when we got to 2009 and things were even more broken than they had been, then I think John was the perfect choice, to lift them up more quickly than anyone else could.”
“Without a question, he will have a major impact,” gushes ESPN commentator Dick Vitale. “He’s a masterful communicator, especially with the modern-day athlete. If he can build programs at Massachusetts and Memphis, all I say is ‘Wow, what he’ll do with the resources at Kentucky.’”
Former Wildcat star Mike Pratt assisted UK officials with this latest coaching search and he was part of Calipari’s initial interview. Pratt, who also serves as the analyst on the Big Blue Radio Network, saw a coach who welcomed the lofty expectations that come with this job.
“I think that’s the most important thing. There’s a lot of guys who can coach, but this job is special, because of all that goes into it besides coaching,” Pratt observes. “There’s recruiting, dealing with the Big Blue fan base, being a part of the community. If you don’t care to do them, it’s not going to be a perfect fit.
“I think Cal has very good people skills. He enjoys the interaction and I think that really helps,” Pratt continues, noting that he was particularly impressed with the homework Calipari did before his meeting with UK President Dr. Lee Todd and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
“He was so well-prepared. He really understood the big picture of the program. He understood that it’s more than about winning and losing. He understands what it (this program) means to this state,” says Pratt. “That means he had looked at this job and maybe even had it in his mind that this was the top of the ladder for him, to test his skills as a leader.”
“He likes a challenge,” says Calipari’s wife, Ellen, “and he knows this is a challenge and I think he’ll rise to the occasion. You tell him something’s hard or you can’t do it, he will prove that you can do it. And he’ll try to do it in a different way or a better way. He’s open to new ways of thinking, which has been proven with the (dribble drive) offense that he runs for the team.”
Make no mistake about the winning and losing part—if the Kentucky coach comes up short in that department, little else will matter. That is a given with programs of this stature. But coaching the game itself is a smaller percentage of the overall role of being the Kentucky coach than with perhaps any other team.
“He’s the CEO of this basketball program. It’s a huge responsibility. It’s like running a major company and you’ve got so many constituencies and so many things that you have to manage,” notes longtime sports marketing guru Jim Host, whose company started the UK Radio Network and grew it into the largest of its kind in the nation.
“He understands that. A good CEO gathers input and then makes the final decision. A good CEO surrounds himself with people who are strong, if not stronger than he is, takes their advice, and then makes a decision,” adds Host, who says he’s never seen a college coach with better interpersonal communication skills.
Ellen Calipari says that’s the management style her husband has always employed.
“He sounds things off a lot of people, compiles his information, and does his homework. But in the end, he will do what he thinks is right. He’s not afraid to ask what other people think,” she says.
CBS announcer Clark Kellogg thinks Kentucky hit a “home run” with the hiring of Calipari. Kellogg’s first major TV job was serving as analyst on the Atlantic-10 network when Calipari was coaching at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1990s, and he remembers the strong first impression he had.
“He’s got tremendous energy and passion. That’s what jumps out at you.
“And when you watched him work, you could see he really knew how to get the most out of kids. Terrific teacher and motivator and he knows the game,” he explains. “He’s had a varied experience as a coach. He’s been at the pro level and he’s been around some great coaches. That tends to fortify your resolve and illuminate that being who you are is how you have to roll, no matter what naysayers may say. He’s a personable and charismatic guy anyway. He has a comfort level for being in the kind of fishbowl that is unique to UK basketball.”
When Calipari steps out of that spotlight and goes home, Ellen says they don’t talk that much about work. She is her husband’s biggest fan but doesn’t follow sports much otherwise, save for the activities of their three children—Erin, Megan, and Brad.
“Mostly, it’s the home front and what the kids are doing. He’s much calmer at home. He’s nothing like he is during the games. He doesn’t have that intensity level at home—or the language. That’s a work persona,” she says with a chuckle. “We do talk about the players. Sometimes I can see things from the mother side of it. Sometimes he listens and sometimes he doesn’t. That’s okay; he can pick and choose. I think the team is a big part of our life. We don’t have family around, so they’re our family. They’re welcome in our house. We care about them and want to help them in whatever way we can. I pull for them like a mom would.”
There’s nothing for Calipari to prove at Kentucky as a coach. He’s a known commodity, having led UMass to its only Final Four appearance and taking Memphis to the championship game for the second time in its history in 2008. But Pratt thinks the opportunity to measure himself against the Kentucky tradition was especially appealing to Calipari.
“I think what he wants to do is test his skills as a coach and motivator against the previous guys that were there, the terrific coaches that Kentucky has had, and the championships they have won. That’s where the real test is—to see if you can hang a banner and keep this program at the level those coaches did,” Pratt says. “He’s going to be a winner wherever he is, but I sense that he wants that challenge to put his mark alongside the great coaches and the great teams that have been at Kentucky.”
Having a coach that embraces that kind of goal and has the skill set to achieve it has reignited a fire in the Big Blue Nation.
“It just kind of re-energized the fan base up here,” says Ira Combs, who hosts the popular Inside the Locker Room radio show based in Hindman, part of the Appalachian Mountains region of Kentucky.
“People go through hard times up here. They’re criticized about their way of life. That ‘hillbilly’ thing hits harder up here than anywhere else in the state. As my brother Oscar (founder of the Cats’ Pause magazine) used to say, ‘We feel rejected and neglected but when basketball season rolls around, we feel like we’re equal to anybody in the nation,’” Combs adds. “Kentucky basketball is the one thing that bonds everyone when they go to their lunches every day or their churches on Sunday or their high school events on Friday night. The one thing everybody wants to talk about is Kentucky basketball. That kind of drifted into the background the last two years. No one really desired to be attached to Kentucky basketball.”
David Shelton is treasurer of the UK alumni chapter in Atlanta, the largest outside the state of Kentucky, and he has witnessed a similar reaction from fans there.
“We’re really thrilled we have somebody that understands and appreciates the tradition of Kentucky basketball. He gets it,” Shelton says. “And he really expresses with sincerity what the program means to the whole Commonwealth, not just the university.”
UK’s 2009-2010 DREAM TEAM
The No. 1 recruiting class in the country. The nation’s top-ranked point guard in freshman John Wall. Fellow top-25 recruits in freshmen DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton. A second nationally touted point guard in Eric Bledsoe. Plus top-50 freshman recruit Jon Hood, sought-after junior college transfer Darnell Dodson, and returning junior Patrick Patterson, who’s again been tapped as a pre-season candidate for one of basketball’s highest honors—the John R. Wooden Player of the Year Award.
Add to that star power John Calipari’s famed quick-style “dribble drive motion offense,” and you have fans across the state literally salivating at the thought of what the Wildcats might do on the hardwood this year.
Their fervor has been flamed by national sports analysts like Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com, who announced after Calipari’s April 1 hiring that “Once Calipari gets Kentucky rolling—and it won’t take him long—Kentucky will be…the dominant team every year…College basketball will belong to Kentucky. Turn back the clock 50 or 60 years, because it’ll be like that all over again.”
With Calipari’s hiring, UK fans are ecstatic at the prospect of a national title run—or runs—to end the team’s 11-year championship drought.
Calipari cautions, though, that he can’t turn UK’s team around overnight. It’s a process that will take some time. Learning the new offense. Learning to play together. And teaching them to dream again.
“My team, we have no experience,” he tells a gathering of Fayette County UK alumni in August. “The only real experience they have is NIT experience…(But) we have a lot of young guys who…think they’re going to win every game. Is that all bad?”
Calipari says he hopes some of that optimism and bravado will rub off on the upperclassmen.
“And now we have to get the returning players to dream big again. To dream like Kentucky players have always dreamed,” he says. “They seem a little beat down.
“But,” Calipari says, “you have to come back to the reality of six returning players and six new players with a new coach and a new way of playing that none of them have ever seen.”
In August, Calipari told a gathering in Louisville they should plan to come to the games with their hands up.
“Balls, early this year, are going to be flying” while the team learns the new offense, he says. “I’m telling you, the first month, you’re going to say, ‘These are the worst basketball shots I’ve ever seen.’”
With time, the team will start to jell, he promises.
“Each week, you’ll go back and say, ‘Wow, I really see what they’re trying to do. There’s not as many turnovers, there’s not as many bad shots, and they’re unleashed now.’”
CALIPARI’S DREAM JOB
Everywhere he goes, UK’s new coach is greeted by standing ovations. Hazard. Pikeville. Owensboro. Ashland. Louisville. Lexington. Fans ask him to sign their t-shirts, their hats, even their car dashboards. He has a Twitter following of 693,268.
At a breakfast with Fayette County UK alumni in August, John Calipari joked that he feels like he’s running for governor, the way he’s been shaking hands and crisscrossing the state since taking the job as UK’s head coach on April 1.
And he told the crowd he knew the reason for all the (pre-season) praise: “We’re still undefeated.”
But Calipari, age 50, a two-time Naismith National Coach of the Year (1996 and 2008) and last year’s Sports Illustrated National Coach of the Year, isn’t letting it go to his head.
The coach, who grew up in Strickly, Pennsylvania, often speaks of his family’s humble beginnings. His grandfather emigrated from Italy knowing no English and worked as a coal miner in West Virginia until he died of black lung disease at age 58. His mother grew up in West Virginia, where she sometimes had dandelion soup for dinner. His parents did not go to college.
“We’re just regular people,” he tells fans about his wife, Ellen, and their three children—Erin, a graduate student at Wake Forest University; Megan, a sophomore at UK; and son Bradley, 12.
As a student, Calipari played Division I basketball for two years at North Carolina-Wilmington, before transferring to Division II Clarion State, where he graduated in 1982. After college, he gained experience as an assistant coach at Kansas (1982-1985) and Pittsburgh (1985-1988).
He got his first head coaching gig at the University of Massachusetts at age 29—because, he likes to say, nobody else wanted the job.
After successful, program-building tenures at UMass (1988-1996) and the University of Memphis (2000-2009)—in which he took both teams to the Final Four—Calipari has called landing the UK head post his “dream job.”
“I’m humbled to be your coach. The coach of the Commonwealth’s team,” he says. “I’m ecstatic. I mean, I’m coaching at the winningest program in the history of our sport.”
Talking to him, it’s clear John Calipari is as excited to be here as Kentucky is to have him.
“They hired me to win ball games and graduate these kids. To do it right. And to make this state and this university proud,” he says.
Coach John Calipari hopes his newest book, Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life, helps people realize they can make it through whatever obstacles life throws at them—whether it’s loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, or, as it was in his case, two very public career failures.
Calipari writes that his second “bounce back event”—his University of Memphis team’s loss to Kansas in the 2008 National Championship after being up by nine points with 2:12 left in the game—wasn’t as hard to overcome as his first widely publicized failure, his firing in 1999 as head coach of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets after just three seasons.
“Your first bounce back is the hardest,” he writes. “In those first hours and weeks after the trigger event occurs, you can feel like it’s you against the world, and that can be an overwhelming situation. But with every bounce back you have, you grow and you begin to realize you’re far from alone.”
Calipari’s book encourages establishing a network of friends and supporters, which he calls the Kitchen Cabinet (borrowing the term for President Andrew Jackson’s advisors) to help see you through tough times.
Drawing on and detailing others’ firsthand bounce back experiences—including Kentuckian Kenny Perry’s after his devastating loss at the 2009 Masters—the book describes life as a “never-ending bounce back.”
Launching his book tour in late August, Calipari tells a crowd of UK alumni he started the book two and a half years ago, literally writing more than 200 pages by hand over the course of two weeks.
“Everybody was calling me. Coaches, other people. They said, ‘You were fired in New Jersey. You got yourself going again. How’d you do it?’” Calipari says. “So I started jotting some ideas down.”
Proceeds from the book—along with proceeds from memberships to Calipari’s new online Web site, CoachCal.com—will support charitable efforts of the Calipari Family Foundation for Children. The Foundation is dedicated to the betterment of the lives of underprivileged children, with donations slated to go to charities in Kentucky and Memphis. Ultimately, Calipari says he hopes the book enables him to motivate and inspire an even greater audience than he can reach as a coach.
“I will maybe get to coach 100 players in my lifetime. But what if I can reach 100,000 with this book?” he says. “Hopefully, a lot of good will come from this. It really is a book to give back.”