The gospel of John Calipari

Love him or hate him, Kentucky's polarizing coach remains ahead of the curve

Originally Published: November 7, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Two days before his team's first official practice of the season, the most polarizing -- and, lately, most successful -- figure in college basketball has the sudden urge to chase down Charlie Sheen.

John Calipari had spotted the Hollywood actor a few minutes earlier during a Cincinnati Reds playoff game, when both celebs were in the same suite. The Kentucky coach initially felt awkward about approaching Sheen, whose cocaine addiction and escapades with porn stars has generated numerous headlines throughout the past few years.

But as Sheen walks out the door with a few innings remaining and heads toward the parking lot, Calipari gets a sudden rush of confidence and hustles to catch up with the actor in the concourse.

[+] EnlargeCalipari & Sheen
@UKCoachCalipariJohn Calipari never misses a chance to hang with celebrities.

"I know you," Sheen says as he's greeted by the coach of the 2012 national champion Wildcats. "Good to finally meet you."

With a Bloody Mary in his left hand and a Marlboro Red clamped between his fingers, Sheen places his right arm around Calipari, who's dressed in a suit. Both men smile as a bystander snaps a picture with the coach's cell phone. Hours later, in his office back in Lexington, Calipari is still giddy about the encounter -- but not for the reasons you'd expect.

Calipari calls up the photo and then hands his phone to associate athletics director DeWayne Peevy, who manages his social media accounts.

"We've got to get this picture out on Twitter," Calipari says. "It'll generate some talk, don't you think? How many followers does Charlie Sheen have?"

Peevy informs Calipari that more than 8 million people track Sheen on the popular site. The coach reclines in his black leather chair and grins.

"Tweet it," he says.


College basketball has never seen anything like John Calipari -- or at least not this John Calipari, whose marketing savvy and reputation for molding gifted players into NBA millionaires has helped separate the Wildcats from the rest of college basketball's blue bloods.

Calipari led Massachusetts and Memphis to the Final Four, but he's taken things to an even higher level since arriving in Lexington. In the past three years, he has more victories (102) than any coach in America, transforming Kentucky into the most visible, chic program in the country.

It's not uncommon to spot NBA All-Star LeBron James or rappers such as Jay-Z in the Rupp Arena stands. During UK's alumni game in September, highly touted 2013 recruit Julius Randle tweeted out a picture of himself with hip-hop star Drake.

Calipari has hosted telethons to raise money for charity and allowed ESPN camera crews into the UK locker room, practice facility and dormitory to shoot footage for a reality TV series.

More than 1.2 million people follow him on Twitter, and he has 368,000 "friends" on Facebook. Kentucky has even hired a full-time employee to run Calipari's website, CoachCal.com.

One moment Calipari sounds like a basketball coach, the next he resembles the CEO of a Fortune 500 company as he brainstorms ideas to promote his program.

"I'm not gonna lie," sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow says. "If you're a recruit and you see Jay-Z in the stands and you see a TV show about the team on ESPN, it's going to make you want to come here. Every player wants to have that."

Especially NBA-caliber freshmen. Nine of the 15 Kentucky players drafted during Calipari's tenure spent just one year in college, and this season's team features four more potential one-and-dones. Every starter -- and every sixth man -- that Cal has coached in Lexington has been drafted, including a record six selections from last season's 38-2 national championship team.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe green room has become a second home for Cal and his players, in this case the top two picks of the 2012 draft (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist).

"Somebody told me that they're going to start calling it the blue room instead of the green room," Calipari joked to reporters after the latest draft.

At this point, could anyone argue?

"What he's done is mind-boggling," UCLA coach Ben Howland says of Calipari. "Seriously, it's just mind-boggling."

Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky, recently joked that Calipari was "turning out more millionaires than a Wall Street firm."

It truly is a frightening combination for opponents: an innovative marketing wizard at one of the country's most tradition-rich programs who is also one of the top teachers and developers of talent in college basketball history.

"He doesn't even have to recruit anymore," one SEC coach said. "He can basically just handpick whoever he wants and sign them. I'm not sure anyone will ever be able to catch him.

"It almost doesn't seem fair."


Less than 48 hours before Friday's season opener against Maryland, the Kentucky Wildcats will spend an hour in a Lexington TV studio Wednesday night answering phone calls.

Calipari has organized a telethon to help raise money for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. He hosted a similar event in 2010 and generated more than $1 million for Haiti earthquake victims.

"People say, 'You play Friday against Maryland!'" Calipari says. "Yeah, that's big. I know it is. But I think what we're doing here is bigger."

Beneficial as the events are for charities, they also help Kentucky's program. Each time the Wildcats are in the national news, more and more people become interested in them. The publicity does nothing but enhance UK's ever-growing brand.

No one understands that more than Calipari, a former marketing major who didn't fully grasp the power he possessed as UK's coach until about five months after his hiring in 2009.

It was then that Peevy convinced Calipari to open a Twitter account. In only a few weeks, Calipari had amassed 400,000 followers.

"Then it went to a million," he said. "It was ridiculous."

Calipari decided to try an experiment. He approached Papa John's with a fundraising plan. For every order placed with a promotional code Calipari provided on Twitter, the pizza chain would donate $1 to Kentucky Children's Hospital. A few weeks later, more than $75,000 had been generated.

"It didn't cost Papa John's a dime," Calipari said. "They came to me and said, 'You're the best pizza-seller we've ever had.'

"Meanwhile, I'm sitting there thinking, 'My God, it's amazing what we can accomplish with these fans. We've got a whole army here.'"

For that reason, Calipari doesn't think what he's achieved on the court is all that special. A lot of coaches, he said, could ride the momentum of the school's passionate fan base to an Elite Eight, two Final Fours and a national championship in three years. He notes that five different coaches, including Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, have won NCAA titles in Lexington.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanCalipari is seemingly everywhere these days.

"And they never won one anywhere else," Calipari says.

That may be the case, but none of his predecessors in Lexington have embraced the celebrity of the Kentucky job quite like Calipari.

During one recent 24-hour stretch, the coach spoke at a luncheon in Louisville, went to an afternoon Reds game in Cincinnati, met a reporter in his office that evening and again at Dunkin' Donuts the following morning and then spent a half-hour with nearly 100 local journalists at the program's media day.

Earlier that week, he allowed a television crew from ESPN to film in his home and also in his car as he drove to the airport for a recruiting trip. Calipari said he laughed when the producer of "Kentucky: All Access" suggested that the reality show would generate interest in the program and help the Wildcats land players.

"So we're going to go from 1A to 1B in recruiting?" Calipari said. "I think we'll be just fine."

Instead, Calipari insists he agreed to do the reality show so the public could see his players for who they really were: hard-working athletes who are committed to going to class and developing on the court.

"People want to see how we get teams to come together so quickly," Calipari says. "They want to see how we get young guys to play so hard and so unselfish. I'm fine with that. I have no problem sharing that. I'm not embarrassed about how we recruit, how we treat kids and how we coach them.

"I sleep reeeaaalllly good at night, because I know we do things right."

Whether positive or negative, the ESPN program created a buzz in college basketball circles and thrust a group of UK freshmen into the national spotlight before they ever played a game. The more familiar the country becomes with their names, the better, says Calipari, who requires his players to go through media training and to meet with sports psychologists to "get them to think right."

"I call it, 'The Kentucky Effect,'" Calipari says. "Guys from Kentucky are usually drafted higher and their shoe contracts are worth more. They're in more demand overall because they played here.

"It also has an effect on the other teams we play. Every place we go is sold out. We walk in and it's like, 'Ohhhh, there they are.' When we come into your town, it's the biggest game you have all year."

Local fans have always been passionate, but a new crop of national followers has surfaced the past three seasons, with rap stars and pro athletes either tuning in or showing up in person to watch the next crop of future NBA stars.

At first Calipari was inviting celebrities such as Drake and LeBron to games. Now it's them calling and asking for tickets. A night at Rupp Arena often feels like it's about more than the game. It's an event.

Jay-Z even celebrated with the Wildcats in their locker room following an NCAA tournament win last season.

[+] EnlargeKentucky Effect
Mark Zerof/US PresswireWith Calipari around and the "Kentucky Effect" in place, everything seems bigger in Big Blue Country.

"People, on their bucket lists, are saying, 'I want to see a game at Rupp Arena,'" Calipari says. "Magic Johnson will call and say, 'I want to come to the game tonight. I want to see John Wall or Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.'

"It's become fashionable to be seen here, because people want to be seen and associated with success. They want to be around it. It's like going to Macy's. It's good to be seen there. Another store, you may lower your head and slip out. But if you're at Macy's, you want people to know you're there."

It only takes players a few weeks to get used to playing in front of celebrity fans such as Ashley Judd. If anything, Calipari says being in their presence prepares the Wildcats for what lies ahead.

"Yeah, we're bringing in stars, because that's who they're going to be mingling with eventually anyway," the coach says. "That's what their life is going to look like in two or three years. Everything I do here, every decision I make, is geared toward 'How do I help these kids?'"


Earlier this fall, in a video released on his website, Calipari took viewers on a tour of the new Wildcat Coal Lodge, the recently completed team dormitory that feels more like a palace.

Calipari boasts that the beds and sink areas are "designed for 7-footers." Heck, the Wildcats even have their own personal chef.

"We want them to know that this is us saying, 'We care about you,'" Calipari says. "But I tell them all the time, 'You don't go to a school because of bricks and mortar and buildings. It's not about the bedroom or the locker room. It's about the green room.'

"That's all kids want to hear. They don't care about all the other stuff."

No coach in America has had as much success at developing NBA players as Calipari, who has produced seven lottery picks in the past three years. While some coaches attempt to take things slowly with players hoping to spend only one year in college, Calipari attempts to ready them for the professional ranks as quickly as possible. Never will he try to convince a player to return to school if he's projected as a high first-round selection.

As a result, nearly every top prospect in the country places Kentucky high on his list and crosses his fingers that Calipari calls.

"At UMass we'd offer 30-35 players and hope to get three or four," Calipari says. "At Memphis we offered 20-25 and hoped to get three or four. Here, we zero in on about seven or eight guys."

Calipari says he doesn't like the rule that forces players to wait at least one year after graduating from high school before entering the NBA draft. But he's adapted accordingly by mastering the art of dealing with one-and-done players and their often enormous egos.

"The model has changed," Calipari says. "If you're following the 25-year-old model, you're behind. You can't do that anymore. If you're coaching kids the way you coached them 20 years ago, where you grabbed kids and head-butted them, you can't do that stuff anymore.

"The reason is that, if you're not all about them, they know it. If you care more about your own success than theirs, they know it. But once you get them to realize that you truly care about them, they'll trust you, and you can coach them however you want."

Most of that trust is built during the recruiting process. Instead of attempting to lure players by promising to feature them in the offense and make them a star, Calipari tells them their experience at Kentucky will be exactly the opposite. For example:

[+] EnlargeKentucky Wildcats
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe elite players that come to UK usually don't stay long -- but they also don't cause any trouble.

• Calipari likes to point out that Davis was the No. 1 pick in the draft and the national player of the year despite averaging the fourth most field goal attempts per game (8.4) among the starters on last season's NCAA championship team. Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick, averaged the fifth most attempts (8.1).

"You can't come here and shoot it 40 times a game," Calipari says he tells recruits. "You're going to have to share. Sacrifice is very important in this program, because there are going to be seven or eight guys on your team just like you. This isn't about you. It's about us."

Calipari pauses.

"Not every kid can deal with that," he says. "And if they can't, they don't come here."

• Calipari explains the often overwhelming expectations placed on Kentucky's players by fans and media. The Wildcats lost their top seven players from last season's squad yet still enter this season ranked No. 3 in America.

"Terrence Jones had one bad game last year and they talked about it all season," Calipari says. "He had one bad game because he had some stuff going on in his personal life and he was in a funk, and people didn't let it die for the entire year. If you can't handle that, don't come here."

• Finally, Calipari stresses that he demands his players' focus be geared almost entirely toward basketball. If you don't love the game, he tells them -- if it's not your life -- Lexington isn't for you.

"I'll say, 'If you're into chasing [girls] and drinking and smoking, you can't come here,'" Calipari says. "I'll tell them, 'That doesn't mean you can't have any fun, but you can't make your life about those things. I've got tents set up outside my house filled with people waiting for the shoe to drop. In other words, when something happens here, it's a big deal. I can't hide you here.'"

His message appears to have resonated. Kentucky's players are praised yearly for their willingness to sacrifice individual statistics to share the ball and for the way they've embraced playing defense, two traits that are often missing in NBA-bound players with egos.

The Wildcats have also steered clear of any major off-the-court issues during Calipari's tenure.

"He's tough on us, but he encourages us more than anything," freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein says. "He keeps telling me, 'You have no idea how good you're going to be.' He keeps reminding me of that.

"You're blind coming in because you're new, but you know there's got to be some reason why young players are going as high as they are in the draft. You see that happening and think, 'What's the reason why?' You hear the stories of Cal talking to NBA scouts and saying, 'My guy is good. You need to draft him.' When you have NBA teams trusting you, that says something. We'd be fools not to listen to him."

Although all of them were dominated by freshmen, Calipari's first three Kentucky teams also featured veteran players who set examples for the newcomers -- guys like Patrick Patterson in 2010, DeAndre Liggins in 2011 and Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones in 2012.

This season, though, UK doesn't feature a single player who made a significant contribution to last season's championship squad. Calipari admits the situation is "dangerous," especially considering the Cats don't have any depth.

That's another Calipari trademark: Division I teams are allotted 13 scholarships, but Calipari rarely has more than seven or eight players on his roster who have signed national letters of intent. He awards the rest of the scholarship money to walk-ons.

It's an unorthodox way of operating -- and perhaps one that suits only Calipari.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari, Bill Self
AP Photo/Bill HaberFor years, Calipari and Kansas coach Bill Self have competed for blue-chip talent.

"I don't know if I'd call what he's doing 'the new model,'" says Howland, who has taken UCLA to three Final Fours, "but it's certainly worked for John."

Kansas coach Bill Self, whose squad lost to Kentucky in last season's NCAA title game, was asked recently if he'd be willing to sign a recruiting class that features nothing but one-and-done prospects.

"Absolutely, in a heartbeat," Self said. "To me, the perfect team is having the foundation be your older guys and have your most talented players be your younger guys, because your older guys would get it and bring your younger guys along.

"That's why Cal did such a remarkable job [last season]. He convinced totally unselfish kids and people associated with those kids to all come together for the best of everybody. He told a bunch of stars, 'You're getting nine shots and that's it,' or, 'You're getting seven shots and that's it,' and they all bought into that. Cal would be the first to tell you: That ain't easy."


Each passing week seems to bring more good news to UK's basketball program. A $2.9 million locker room renovation project is nearing completion and, for the fourth time in five years, the Wildcats are on the verge of signing the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. The third-, fifth- and sixth-ranked prospects in the Class of 2013 have all committed to Kentucky.

The more success the Cats have, the more a big-time, professional atmosphere surrounds the program. Administrators at basketball games resemble secret service agents, wearing earpieces and whispering into tiny microphones attached to their collars. If Calipari decides to make a restroom stop on the way to his postgame news conference, people know about it.

Autograph seekers from all over town wait for players outside of Wildcat Coal Lodge each morning. Nerlens Noel said someone recently asked him to sign an infant baby. When a fan put her arm around Alex Poythress during a picture, he could feel her hand trembling.

Still, even though his program is envied by coaches across America, and even though no school has been able to match his recent success, there are times when Calipari still seems on edge, as if the national championship trophy in his display case isn't enough.

"I still think," Peevy says, "that Cal feels like the red-headed stepchild that can't get accepted into the club."

Indeed, despite all of his success, Calipari still has more critics than any figure in college basketball. Whether it's a coach accusing him of dirty recruiting or a fan hinting that he cheated to get players, people have always been quick to question Calipari's success.

Calipari swears it doesn't bother him. Moments after Kentucky won the NCAA title last spring, he wrapped his arms around his wife and said, "I'm glad my friends and family don't have to defend me anymore."

[+] EnlargeCalipari
Richard Mackson/US PresswireThroughout his career, Calipari has always had a chip on his shoulder -- and it doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.

Deep down, though, it's obvious that certain things still irk Calipari.

"Sometimes I need stuff swirling around me to keep me on my toes," he says.

Nearly a year later, Calipari still seems peeved about the comments made during a speech by Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight, who said Kentucky's players "don't go to class." The Wildcats had a 3.2 cumulative grade point average last season. All five underclassmen who entered the draft finished out the spring semester.

"How could some guy say we don't go to class," says Calipari, refusing to call Knight by name. "It's just not true. What would lead that guy to believe that? All the crap stuff, the innuendo … I don't deal with any of it. But if a guy tries to go after any of my players to hurt me, that changes the whole set for me."

This summer, a poll of coaches by CBSSports.com revealed that Calipari was viewed as the "biggest cheater" in college basketball, partially because of his connection to Nike and his friendship with William Wesley, aka "World Wide" Wes, who has ties to many of the country's top prospects.

"I'm not going to let someone define who I am," Calipari says. "I'm not saying I'm an angel, but I'm certainly not that other guy they're trying to paint.

"People say the only reason I get kids is because of this guy or that guy? Is that right? It has nothing to do with kids turning into successful pros? It has nothing to do with all the games we've won here? There are guys who have one mission in life, and that's to slow this train down. I'm not going to listen to them. In 50 years we'll all be judged without the emotion, without the agendas."

Instead Calipari says he focuses on the feedback he receives from former players, many of whom are earning millions in the NBA. If it weren't for basketball, he says, most wouldn't have earned their college degree.

"These days, in the age of one-and-done, it almost feels like we're in the business of helping families more than coaching," Calipari says. "If I'm still coaching when I'm 60, I'll be surprised. But who knows, maybe I'll be 60 and I'll still be having so much fun affecting lives, I'll say, 'This is too good of a thing for all of these families. I'll keep running until it goes dry.' That could happen.

"Every year I've had kids leave and everyone says the program is going to crumble, that it's going to fold, but we've gotten better each time. I guess that's karma. When you're doing the right things for other people, it all seems to work out."