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Sunday, April 5, 2009
Calipari ready for Kentucky stage

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

DETROIT -- There were no fans. Just John Calipari, a reporter and two cameras in a downtown hotel Saturday afternoon. Yet the new Kentucky coach, likely the highest-paid college basketball coach in the country, was on stage.

He knows his audience, so Kentucky fans, listen up. Coach Cal wants you to know a number of things:

John Calipari
Calipari has his share of detractors, but he also has won plenty of people over.

• Calipari cried when he made the decision to leave Memphis.

"I hate to say this for Kentucky fans, but your basketball coach cried," he said. "This was hard."

• Calipari was willing to take less money to coach Kentucky, even though it wasn't offered in that manner.

"I don't want you to tell Kentucky this, but I would have taken less money to go to Kentucky," Calipari said. "Because it's Kentucky. Don't tell them that, though."

He said he thought four or five private school coaches make more money, but he couldn't come up with a name. He said he and his wife will continue to be charitable in Memphis and now in Lexington.

"I don't need the job, because of what happened to me with my NBA experience," Calipari said of being paid millions when he coached the New Jersey Nets from 1996 to 1999. "I don't need the money. I could live a good life. I'm going to Kentucky to have fun. I want the players to have fun."

• Calipari, now 50, always dreamed of coaching at Kentucky.

"It came down to, could I live with myself three years from now, two years from now, if I didn't do this? Could I live with myself, or would I live to regret because maybe now I'm 58, and it opens again, and you know what they say? My dream job, [they would say] 'You're too old.' And I just said, 'You know what? I can't do it. I cannot live with that.'"

• Calipari wanted to leave only for a job that was considered the best in its league, meaning he wasn't really going to coach NC State or Arkansas after listening to both schools offering him positions in the past five years.

"I want to go to a league where the program I'm coaching is the best in that league," he said. "Now I walk into Kentucky, and it's the best program maybe in the country, not just the SEC."

• Calipari knows only that Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart admitted he made a mistake when he told him why he didn't hire him two years ago instead of Billy Gillispie.

• Calipari has no idea why Barnhart insisted on mentioning Calipari's commitment to compliance so early during Tuesday's news conference in Lexington announcing the hire.

• Calipari needs to rebuild the Kentucky brand.

"At Kentucky, you can recruit the best of the best," he said.

• Calipari no longer has to beg television networks to set up nonconference games for him in January and February.

"We used to fight for TV, and now I don't have to fight for it anymore," he said. "I'm at Kentucky now. North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, Louisville we can have on the schedule. Ben Howland of UCLA, let's play."

• Calipari won an NCAA-record 38 games and took Memphis to the NCAA tournament title game last season, recruited some of the best players in the country and coached a No. 1 tournament seed two of the past four seasons. So what can he accomplish at Kentucky that he didn't at Memphis?

"You're in a different stratosphere," Calipari said. "Not taking anything away from what we did at Memphis, because it was one of the top five programs in the country. But Kentucky's upside is even greater."

• Calipari would never do anything to damage former UK coach Rick Pitino's reputation.

• Calipari said Kentucky underclassmen Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks should declare for the NBA draft if they expect to be lottery picks or to be selected early in the first round. But if they expect to go off the board afterward, they should come back to play at Kentucky next season.

• All Memphis signees should honor their commitments and play for the Tigers, Calipari said, although he knows that may be unlikely. The committed players aren't under the same obligation, he said. That means DeMarcus Cousins is a free agent who could soon visit Kentucky, then choose to play for the Wildcats.

• Calipari may need three to four years to return Kentucky to the elite. Doing so took four years at UMass and four at Memphis. "Maybe at Kentucky, it will take only three," Calipari said.

• He's not ruling out attrition on the current Kentucky roster but would honor a player's request to stay if he has loved playing at Kentucky.

• Calipari practiced the team for two days last week. He taught the players the dribble-drive offense to see how they fit in that framework. He said they had run more high-low under Gillispie but wasn't disappointed with the potential for them to play his style.

"In two weeks, we'll figure out if everyone is a good fit and is absolutely going to play," Calipari said of the two sessions. "If you're not [able to], then I want to be honest and tell you, 'Maybe you won't play here.' I expect that some will … come to me and say, 'I wasn't recruited to play this way.'"

• Calipari said the Memphis program won't wilt without him. The program didn't die during various times of transition and won't now, either.

"This program is about the city of Memphis," Calipari said. "It means so much to the community that they won't let it go down."

But he knows he's not loved by all. "Right now I'm a scoundrel to a lot of people there," he said.

• Calipari won't be a stranger on campus. He said he won't stay in his office and avoid interacting with the other coaches or teams. He plans on attending football, baseball and women's basketball games as well as other sporting events.

"It's not going to change," Calipari said. "I'm going to be who I am. I'm just going to be me."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.