BIRMINGHAM, AL — If he were younger and in the same position he is in today, head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, John Calipari isn’t so sure he could handle the pressure. At Kentucky, winning isn’t good enough nor is going to the NCAA Tournament. “It’s Kentucky,” Calipari says, and he really doesn’t have to say more. Because it is Kentucky Calipari understands that the only measure of success is NCAA championships so it is a pressure cooker existence that requires an extraordinary feeling of self worth, something he didn’t have back in 1999 when the New Jersey Nets canned him after three years.
The seven national championship banners Calipari sees every time he looks out the window at his office to the practice floor below at the Kentucky practice facility are his constant reminder that this is a much different gig than the one he just left at Memphis. Memphis fans were thrilled to death just to get to the second Final Four in school history.
At Kentucky, you better not only get to the Final Four, but you better bring home another championship banner.
The last coach couldn’t handle the expectations. Two years into his five-year contract, Billy Gillispie was eaten and spit out by the Big Blue Nation. Before Gillispie there was Tubby Smith, who won a national championship his first year on the job, and then never got to the Final Four again. He walked away after the 2007 season before Kentucky fans could grind him down any further.
Now it’s Calipari’s turn to live life under the Lexington microscope. He’s 50 years old, comfortable with himself and confident that he can handle the weight of expectations.
“If I was 35, I wouldn’t have been ready for this position and at 40, I probably wouldn’t have been either,” Calipari said Thursday morning at the Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Day at the Marriott Conference Center.
He says whoever is the coach at Kentucky needs to have been through the heartbreak and disappointment of basketball’s equivalent of a public execution, which is attending a news conference where it’s announced that you’ve just been fired. The coach also needs to have thick skin and the only way to get that is through experience.
“At 40 I was too sensitive,” he says, admitting that he just doesn’t read what’s in the newspaper or listen to what is being said about him on radio talk shows or ESPN or any other television network. “I come to work and somebody says ‘Coach, Jerry Tipton (basketball writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader) just killed you today’ and I just look at them and say okay, that’s fine. I don’t read it. I like Jerry. I’ve always liked Jerry. I just don’t read what he writes and don’t want to know what he writes.”
At Kentucky he has to deal with a fanatical fan base that makes privacy the thing dreams are made of. Kentucky fans want to know everything about the basketball program and that includes what the basketball coach is doing 24 hours a day.
It only took a few days in Lexington to discover that the measure of privacy he enjoyed in Memphis doesn’t exist in Lexington. Calipari took a tour of a house that was up for sale and the next day it was front page news.
“The first thing you have to understand is that the team belongs to the Commonwealth [of Kentucky],” Calipari said. “It’s their team.”
Because it is their team, they want to know. Calipari said the average fan who wants to know is just fine.
“There are 98 percent who are great people but two percent are absolutely nuts,” Calipari said. “I deal with the 98 percent. If you try to deal with the two percent, they’ll drive you nuts.”
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Driving the rest of the SEC nuts is fine with Calipari, who brings his dribble drive offense to the league. He’s viewed as a charismatic genius of a coach on one hand; a shady sort who spends way too much in the NCAA gray area pushing the rules of recruiting to their absolute limit by others. Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis are proof that he can coach.
The fact that both those Final Four appearances were vacated by the NCAA raises questions about Calipari and the gray areas of the rule book. Although the NCAA cleared him of wrongdoing, the fact that it happened on Calipari’s watch makes him a suspect.
He’s also considered a suspect because he has this pied piper effect as a recruiter. Even though he was hired in April, Calipari still brought in a recruiting class that included 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins, 6-3 point guard John Wall, 6-0 point guard Eric Bledsoe and 6-6 juco forward Darnell Dodson. Calipari’s detractors say it’s impossible to recruit a class like that on such late notice without something shady going on.
Calipari’s answer is, “It’s Kentucky.”
Maybe the best recruiting job Calipari did is perhaps the one he did the least amount of work and that was on 6-9, 240-pound junior Patrick Patterson, one of the two or three best players in the SEC. Calipari encouraged Patterson to test the NBA waters and had one serious talk with him, then let Patterson make up his own mind.
A couple of weeks later Patterson called him and said, “We need to talk.” When they met, Patterson indicated he wanted to come back for his junior year.
“I said okay, why do you want to come back?” Calipari said. “He said, ‘If I want to be a good pro I have to learn to play on the outside some; I want to graduate in three years; and I want to play in the NCAA Tournament.’ Those are three pretty good reasons right there.”
So Patterson will start at power forward. Cousins will start at center and Darius Miller will start at the small forward. Calipari hasn’t decided what he will do in the backcourt with Wall and Bledsore. Both are point guards but both could start. They’ll definitely play together a lot.
Two things are certain: Kentucky will be talented but the Wildcats will be young.
“We may start three freshmen,” Calipari said. “We could be out there with a junior, three freshmen and a sophomore. We could be the youngest team in the country at the end of the day.”
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Calipari says he doesn’t pay that much attention to what other teams do. He’s more focused on what his team does and that has a lot to do with his philosophy about scouting reports and watching tape of opponents.
There are no scouting reports.
“The only time our guys watch tape of the other team is right before our pre-game meal,” he said.
Although it’s somewhat unique, it isn’t a brand new philosophy. John Wooden basically did the same thing when he was winning all those championships at UCLA.
“College basketball is about moving,” Calipari said, and that actually explains his philosophy on both ends of the court. On the offensive end, it’s about movement and if his team keeps getting movement, he knows they’ll get shots and layups. Defensively, the idea is to take away the other team’s ability to move.
“It’s about finding a style that fits you,” Calipari said. His teams are 137-14 (on the floor record … 38 wins were vacated by the NCAA) since he went to the dribble drive offense and stopped worrying about what the other guys do.
No matter what offense or defense he runs, the Big Blue Nation will love him if he wins and they will be all over his case if he loses. And, winning won’t be good enough. He better win the only game that matters in the eyes of Kentucky fans, and that’s the NCAA championship game.
“It’s Kentucky,” he said. He didn’t have to say more.