Sunday, March 27, 2011 Updated: March 29, 7:38 AM ET
Coach Cal's third Final Four is his first
By Ian O'Connor ESPNNewYork.com
NEWARK, N.J. -- The academic who interviewed and hired John Calipari, who took the most polarizing man in college basketball at his word, was standing amid the East Regional revelry when he nodded toward a circle of Kentucky basketball players cutting down a Prudential Center net.
"It was a three-hour conversation," Kentucky president Lee Todd said, "and then he convinced me that this banner won't come down."
That's how Calipari got the job, by whispering sweet somethings into Todd's ear and by promising that the Final Four banner he'd win for the Wildcats wouldn't end up in the same trash bin with all of his Final Four trinkets from Memphis and UMass.
John Calipari got Kentucky to the Final Four by knowing the difference between an X and an O.
Only Calipari can close a sale like that. Yeah, I left two programs in disgrace, but I swear on a stack of Bibles there will be no unholy trinity on my watch.
"Everybody watches everything he does," Todd said of his compliance people. "Believe me, they watch everything he does. And he has been just spectacular while he's been at Kentucky."
Spectacular being a relative term, of course. The NCAA ruled Calipari's Turkish recruit, Enes Kanter, permanently ineligible, and the smart money says the posse will keep chasing Coach Cal with the same passion and purpose his players showed in their 76-69 victory over North Carolina, a team of towering oaks who couldn't unnerve Kentucky's 3-point shooters, most notably a freshman named Brandon Knight.
But Sunday night wasn't about John Calipari the rogue recruiter as much as it was about John Calipari the brilliant motivator and strategist. College basketball fans marveling over Butler's return trip to the national semis after losing its most gifted player, Gordon Hayward, to the pros should take a seat and listen up:
Kentucky sent five players to the first round of the 2010 NBA draft, the most legitimate Fab Five the game has seen, and yet Calipari prodded a mismatched group of freshmen and weather-beaten upperclassmen into believing it could win a national championship, or at least come damn close.
You don't do that by simply speed-dialing World Wide Wes and outmaneuvering your peers in and around the grim underbelly of the sport. You do that by pushing the right human buttons with temperamental students, and by knowing the difference between an X and an O.
"If he wins a national championship," said Calipari's wife of 25 years, Ellen, as she watched her husband celebrate on the Prudential Center court, "maybe some people will finally see that he can coach and do things with players that maybe don't have the abilities other players have.
"I'd like to see him get the respect he deserves, the respect he sometimes doesn't get. But I feel that some people would probably still feel the same way they do. I don't know if some people are jealous or what it is, but it's unfortunate because he works very, very hard at what he does."
Calipari's work is all over this Kentucky team, one that looks and feels as destined as UConn and Butler and VCU. The 2010 Wildcats were supposed to win it all, but fell to West Virginia in a regional final.
This crew? It was supposed to be a year away even before Kentucky was placed in the zone of death with the likes of Ohio State, North Carolina and Syracuse. "When I saw the board, the seedings," Calipari said Sunday night, "yeah, I'm a little surprised we're here."
Kentucky survived so many hooks and jabs along the way, Calipari said, "We went from Louis to Robinson to Ali." Suddenly the coach once fired by the Nets in a most emasculating way was the king of Jersey, as big as Bruce. With the final score frozen in lights, with a regional championship cap in his left hand, Calipari walked toward a corner of the stands and waved for family and friends to join him on the floor.
Calipari's promise to Kentucky? It won't be like it was at Memphis or UMass.
He kissed his wife and son, Bradley, and embraced the Kentucky president who had gambled on him. Once upon a time, Todd refused to even meet with the infamous Coach Cal.
"I had some concerns about some of the players who were playing on that [Memphis] team that had gone to some high schools that really weren't the caliber of high schools I thought they should be," Todd said. "And of course, the smoke that surrounded the Marcus Camby thing [at UMass] and so forth."
The Kentucky athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, worked on his boss. "He called me the night Calipari lost the NCAA [title to Kansas]," Todd said, "and said, 'I know you've got some concerns about Cal, but he's going to be in a hotel for three hours in Chicago. We've got a plane lined up ... and nobody will know we're going. We're going to hire him.'"
Calipari told Todd there were two premier jobs in college sports -- head football coach at Notre Dame and head basketball coach at Kentucky -- and that he had no interest in waking up the echoes in South Bend.
"Ask me anything you want," Calipari said.
So Todd did. As a Kentucky president who had lived through the hell of NCAA football probation, Todd was worried that Calipari might burn him. "I had to get over a little hurdle," Todd said. "But once I had that conversation with him and once I looked in his eye, we were done. I was ready to hire him."
And Calipari was ready to swear that his next victory in a regional final wouldn't end up like the previous two -- as dream sequences ripped straight out of the "Inception" script.
Though the NCAA vacated his Final Four runs with Memphis and UMass, Calipari wasn't directly tied to the violations that left those trips null and void. Whatever. Sunday night, people didn't know whether to congratulate Calipari for making his third trip to the national semis, or for making his first.
"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 that. It will be, here's the facts. Here's what he's done. There it is. Play it out. Do you like it or not?"
So far Kentucky likes it, and likes it a lot. Next up, Calipari faces Jim Calhoun, among the more prominent names on a Coach Cal enemies list that runs longer than the Mississippi.
"Look, I respect him and what he does," Calipari said. "We don't send cards to each other."
Nobody wants a card from John Calipari, anyway. Just a banner. And one that finally sticks.