Commentary

UK asked for glory; Calipari delivered

Originally Published: April 3, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- The night before the national championship game, Bruiser Flint joined John Calipari and a few others in a hotel room.

Flint, who worked with Calipari at UMass, got the Kentucky coach to riff on the old days and spin some good tales about recruiting road trips.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Richard Mackson/US PresswireKentucky coach John Calipari clearly doesn't have a problem finding willing opponents these days.

When Flint walked into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to watch the title game, one of the other people from the hotel room pulled the Drexel coach aside.

"He said, 'Man, I'm really glad you were in there. We needed someone to break the ice,'" Flint said. "You know, it was pretty intense in there."

Intense because Kentucky had the best team in the country by a country mile and everyone knew it -- especially the people in the Commonwealth who have waited 14 long years for another title.

Longtime basketball writer Dick Jerardi said an hour before the game that he feared this national championship against Kansas could look an awful lot like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, so good were the Wildcats.

He was right. Kentucky is, indeed, a tremendous machine.

And Calipari knew it. He knew he had the best thoroughbreds in the barn, an amalgamation whose talent is only outdone by its unexpected unselfishness.

Yet for a week, at least publicly, the Wildcats coach has stubbornly insisted that winning a national championship would do nothing for him, that his first trophy wouldn't rubber-stamp a career 30 arduous years in the making.

And when the trophy was his, the nets were cut and the eighth national championship for Kentucky locked up with a 67-59 win against Kansas, Calipari refused to edit the script.

"I'm glad it's done," he said. "Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball, getting these players to be the best that they can be. I don't have to hear the drama. I can just coach now. I don't have to worry. If you want to know the truth, it's almost like, 'Done. Let me move on.'"

That, of course, is vintage Calipari, a contented contrarian who stubbornly refuses to say what people would like him to say. It is in his blood, built over years of trying to kick down the door of acceptance only to have it slammed back in his face.

Before he arrived at Kentucky, Calipari spent his career on the periphery, the upstart tilting at windmills, hoping for his due. When he succeeded, taking UMass and later Memphis to the Final Four, his successes were negated by NCAA scandal, earning him a reputation as a renegade instead of a winner.

[+] EnlargeDavis/Calipari
AP Photo/David J. PhillipCalipari wouldn't let his emotions overcome him after the game, insisting the moment belonged to his players.

Now he is at the epicenter of college basketball, at a university whose very willingness to hire him brought him into the rarefied fold.

And those who know him well know that he is at his heart like any other coach, like any professional.

No one wants to fail. Everyone wants to be viewed as a success.

"There's no question about it: It validates him," said Flint, one of Calipari's closest friends. "It would validate any coach. He likes to say it doesn't mean anything, but winning a national championship, that's what we get in this to do."

It is certainly what Kentucky got into business with Calipari for. He came to town on the heels of the Billy Gillispie debacle, an epic coaching flameout that was as much due to Gillispie's reticent personality as his NIT bid.

The Wildcats needed a home run and Calipari was the grand slam. As Calipari's coaching mentor, Larry Brown, explained, "If God modeled a person to be the head coach at Kentucky, it would be John Calipari."

He embraces the insanity of it all, a guy who, in his first Big Blue Madness invoked grandparents camping out in tents, military fans in Iraq and legendary Bill Keightley.

And so the university rolled the dice on a hire it knew would be viewed as controversial in some precincts, hoping the risk would come with a reward.

On April 2, the investment came due.

Of course, Calipari couldn't win without some sort of controversy, albeit one that is certainly not his doing.

In the next few weeks, the athletic department should be churning out more news conferences and news items, with the expected departure of the better part of this title-winning box score.

Critics and traditionalists already are lamenting the death of college basketball, but Calipari is only taking advantage of a system that others -- not he -- broke.

It's worth remembering that 25 years ago, when Rick Pitino coaxed Providence to the Final Four by exploiting the new 3-point line, the old-timers thumbed their noses at him, too.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PresswireWith this type of ability, it's easy to see why Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis is turning pro.

Two years ago, Calipari raised eyebrows -- and a few hackles in Kentucky -- when he called the 2010 NBA draft the best day in school history.

A record five of his players were picked up in the first round of that draft.

"The reason was, I knew other kids would look and say, 'You got to go there,'" he said. "What I'm hoping is there's six first-rounders this year."

It's certainly possible, at least based on how this team played here. Anthony Davis -- he of the Gumby body, caterpillar eyebrows and once-in-a-generation talent -- scored six points against the Jayhawks, shooting a woeful 1-of-10 from the floor.

He was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and deserved it easily, his line the best explanation of what makes this Kentucky team tick -- 1-of-10 shooting but 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists, three steals and too many altered Jayhawks jumpers to count.

Calipari hasn't so much proved that coaxing one-year players to campus can work as he has showed that this particular group worked masterfully.

The Wildcats won this national championship not because of travel-team diva offense but incredible defense and uncommon selfishness.

The play of the game was not a dunk -- though there were plenty of those -- or a 3-pointer; it was a hustle block from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Trailing by as many as 18, Kansas followed its 2012 theme, chipping away at the lead and getting within nine points with 3:52 to play, which had to at least evoke a flutter of butterflies in Calipari's stomach.

It was, after all, four years ago when his Memphis team led a Bill Self-coached Kansas team by nine with 2:12 to play.

And lost.

The Jayhawks weren't done making an entire state get into fetal position either, trailing 63-57 and with the ball with 1:11 to play.

Tyshawn Taylor drove from the right baseline, beating Kidd-Gilchrist backdoor for what looked like an easy layup.

Out of nowhere, Kidd-Gilchrist recovered to block the shot.

"He made an unbelievable play," Taylor said. "I thought I had it. I should have finished it on the same side, but I felt like I was too far under the rim. He didn't quit on the play. His length is something you can't really teach. So him not giving up, then him using his length, he made an unbelievable play. I definitely thought I had a layup."

But what you think isn't what you get with this group. You expect divas looking for their own shots, and you get guys looking for each other.

You expect seniors like Darius Miller to be resentful of the latest bumper crop of freshmen. Instead, you get reverential.

And frankly, you expect a coach who has spent a career grasping but missing the brass ring to at least admit to some sort of personal triumph or allow for some emotional release.

Instead, you get Calipari. When Elijah Johnson's last-hope 3-pointer arced through the air without so much as touching twine, landing safely in Davis' hands, Calipari merely nodded his head and turned to hug his staff.

"He's going to underplay it, but c'mon, there's nothing like winning a national championship," Flint said.

Perhaps sometime soon, even John Calipari will agree.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

ALSO SEE