Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March 14, 2011
THERE WAS A TIME, EARLY ON, WHEN IT SEEMED EASY TO PEG John Calipari. Back in the late 1980s he was just another pretty face, one more Pat Riley clone with the slick hair and dazzling patter, the just-so suits and shoes. Talent flocked to him, but he radiated a knockoff's flimsiness: too much talk and an ambition about as subtle as sharkskin. Opposing recruiters wanted to beat him bloody. Opposing coaches tried to sabotage his hiring. Omens? His first game as a head coach, the scoreboard caught fire. You just didn't figure Calipari for the long haul. These days, of course, he is basketball's great survivor, the ever-moving (Gas up the private jet!), ever-hustling (four McDonald's All-Americans in this year's freshman class!), ever-tweeting (nearly 1.2 million followers!) head coach of the University of Kentucky. And while his eight-year, $31.7 million contract—the richest in the college game—is the most obvious measure of his success, it's hardly the most telling. Like the sharpest scavenger after a storm, Calipari, 53, has prospered more than any other coach in college basketball's broken system, gathering up top recruits, winning 30 games a season and then happily waving his one-and-done players goodbye. In 2010 an unprecedented five Wildcats, four of them freshmen, went in the first round of the NBA draft. And this season, with three precocious freshmen leading the way, he won his first national championship and Kentucky's first since 1998.
Still, the biggest win of Coach Cal's 23-year head-coaching career surely came not in New Orleans in the 2012 title game but during three hours in a Chicago hotel suite in March '09, when he persuaded Kentucky's president, Lee T. Todd Jr., to hire him even as the NCAA was investigating alleged violations by Calipari's program at Memphis. And since then the coach's stature within the administration has only grown. To have Todd—who was so alarmed by what he calls the "smoke" surrounding Calipari that he wouldn't consider him when the job first opened in '07—say last February that the only coach to preside over two Final Four runs vacated by the NCAA (at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008) now gives him "a good, wholesome feeling," well, that too can be considered a kick-ass performance.
"I could be at risk of saying he did a job on me [in Chicago], but it's proved to be a real job, a long-lasting job," Todd says. "I've seen the proof. I've seen him operate."
Calipari's detractors delight in noting that he has always left town one step ahead of the sheriff, even if he was cleared by the NCAA of any personal culpability in the UMass and Memphis messes. And what do the message-board cynics make of his $1 million donation two years ago to Streets Ministries of Memphis, or his washing of poor kids' feet in Port-au-Prince and Detroit that year, or his organizing a telethon that raised $1.3 million for Haiti's earthquake victims? They cite ESPN analyst Bob Knight, who in December 2009 called Calipari the embodiment of the sport's ills. "Integrity is really lacking [in college basketball]," Knight said in a speech in Indianapolis. "We've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation, and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that."
Never mind that the General had his facts wrong: Only Memphis went on probation. Knight is the bulldog eyeing the cat as it lands, again, on its feet, and he's not the only one perplexed. Calipari once declared that rather than competition or education, "everything in this game is marketing," and it's a constant struggle for rivals and the hoops commentariat to decide where his sell begins and ends. "John's out there," says Larry Brown, one of his coaching mentors. "The way he dresses, the way he talks nonstop. A lot of people look at that shtick and say, That guy is not real."
Calipari's spin is so notorious—and the smoke swirling around him so thick—that few noticed a gesture of sportsmanship that would have burnished any other coach's reputation. In February 2011, during a pulverizing win over Tennessee at Rupp Arena, Wildcats fans chanted, Bruce, you cheat-ed! at then Vols coach Bruce Pearl, who was back after an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA investigators. Calipari and Pearl despise each other, but Calipari whirled on the students, glared and shook his head. "Stop!" he said, waving his arms. "There's no place for that here." The chant died, yet no laudatory ink flowed Calipari's way.
Could it be that the slickness that has lifted him to the top of his profession also allows nothing good to stick? "We just roll out the balls here," Calipari will say, but this is not humility. It's hurt. His rep as a recruiter and all the hand-wringing about one-and-dones have made it easy to ignore the fact that year in and year out, he gets players—especially those with one eye fixed on the mock-draft boards—to sacrifice their individual games for the team. And five of his former assistants currently hold Division I head-coaching jobs. How's that for a coaching tree?
"People try to figure out, Why does he do something? There's an ulterior motive," Calipari says. "They're obsessed. And if you're obsessed, you lose. The great news is, I'm not obsessed with them."