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John Feinstein Blog: John Calipari Has Changed For The Worse

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(Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The first time I met John Calipari was in the summer of 1984 at The Five-Star basketball camp. Ironically, given the way last season ended for Kentucky, the camp was being held on the campus of Robert Morris University. I was leaning against a wall waiting for camp director Howard Garfinkel to introduce Rick Pitino so Pitino could start the afternoon clinic, when someone in a blue-and-white Kansas basketball T-shirt walked over to me with his hand out.

“John, didn’t know you’d be here. Great to see you.”

All I knew for sure was that the young man — John was 25 at the time but looked about 16 — in the Kansas T-shirt was a coach and that he worked for Larry Brown, who was then the coach at Kansas. Seeing the look on my face, Calipari grinned.

“John Calipari,” he said. “I work for Larry. What are you up to?”

I told him I was doing a story on Garfinkel and Five-Star and he began talking about knowing Garf since he was a kid and how much he admired him and the fact that he insisted on making Five-Star a teaching camp even though all the ‘shoe-company,’ camps were only about promoting themselves and the star players who showed up to be seen by as many coaches as possible.

“Garf’s the best,” Calipari said. He nodded towards the court where Garfinkel had just finished his 15-minute (no exaggeration) introduction of Pitino. “This guy’s about as good as it gets too.”

More irony. Back then Calipari and Pitino were part of the ‘Five-Star family.’ Both had worked the camp once upon a time and were intensely loyal to Garfinkel. Almost thirty years later, that hasn’t changed. Just about everything else about Calipari and Pitino’s relationship has. Now most of their communication comes through sniping at one another publicly.

One of the great things about going to summer camps in those days when I was still a young reporter was meeting young, up-and-coming assistant coaches like Calipari. Almost from the moment I met him, I could tell John was going to be a star: he had a personality that took over the room — or the gym — the minute he walked into it. He was smart, he had a sense of humor and he had one of the greatest skills any recruiter needs: he could make whomever he was talking to feel like the most important person in the world.

Calipari went from Kansas to Pittsburgh, where he worked for Paul Evans, and then took over a Massachusetts program in 1988 that was coming off a 1-27 season. By his second year at UMass, the Minutemen had made the NIT. By his fourth season they were in the NCAA Tournament. In his final season there, 1996, they were undefeated and ranked No. 1 for most of the regular season before losing in the Final Four to Kentucky — coached by Rick Pitino.

I have often maintained that what Calipari did at UMass was one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in the history of sports. Unfortunately, that turnaround was sullied when the NCAA vacated UMass’s Final Four appearance after it turned out that star center Marcus Camby had been taking money from an agent while still playing for the Minutemen.

There was never proof that Calipari was directly involved, but he fled anyway — to the New Jersey Nets. There, the charm that made him such a great recruiter, didn’t play as well with grown men. Like Pitino — who would fail just as miserably a few years later in Boston — Calipari returned to the college ranks and proceeded to build another power — this time at Memphis.

The ending there was almost identical to UMass. Again, it involved his star player. This time, the NCAA found that someone else had taken Derrick Rose’s SAT for him. Again, Calipari wasn’t found guilty of anything specific but there had long been whispers about the program — especially because of some of the people Calipari regularly allowed to hang out with his team. Even BEFORE The 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, there was talk that the NCAA was praying that Memphis wouldn’t win the title because no champion had ever been vacated.

Memphis should have won, but missed free throws late in the championship game and a 3-point buzzer beater by Kansas’s Mario Chalmers put the game into overtime. The Jayhawks won and when Memphis was vacated a year later, it was as the runner-up.

Kentucky really didn’t care that Calipari had been in charge of two programs that had Final Four appearances vacated. It cared that he had taken two schools to the Final Four, including one that had been horrible when he took over. So, the school gave him an eight-year contract worth about $32 million to replace Billy Gillispie in 2009.

The investment has more than paid off. In 2010, Kentucky went to the elite eight. A year later, the Final Four and the year after that it won the national championship, beating a Pitino-coached Louisville team in the national semifinals. Revenge for 1996.

Calipari has become the king of recruiting one-and-dones — players looking for a place to walk-through college for a year before they are eligible for the NBA draft. His sales pitch is simple: Come here and you will be better prepared for the NBA than anyplace else AND you will be more marketable because you will be at Kentucky and I will sing your praises.

Only now things have gone a little bit off the rails. A year ago, not only did UK fail to make the NCAA Tournament, it lost in the FIRST ROUND of the NIT to Robert Morris not far from the gym where John and I first met. Sure, Nerlens Noel tore up his knee, but the Wildcats weren’t exactly hammering people before the injury.

This year was going to be different. Calipari really LIKED the new freshman group. They were tough. They were hugely talented. They were tabbed by the so-called experts as the best recruiting class since The Fab Five. (Which, NCAA sanctions aside, never won a championship). There were whispers about 40-0, which Calipari didn’t discourage.

Fast forward four months. Kentucky is 22-9 and lucky to have played in a weak SEC. Maybe they will make a March run in the NCAA Tournament — because they will be in the field this year. Their one quality win all season? Louisville and Pitino, naturally.

Calipari hasn’t handled the disappointing regular season very well. He’s sniped at his team publicly — accusing the players of not ‘taking ownership,’ even though he’s now paid $5.5 million a year to ‘own,’ and lead the players HE recruited. He’s whined about how young the team is — that’s the way he PLANS it each season, no? He’s accused the players of not buying in, of not being emotionally committed. A couple weeks ago he got thrown out during an embarrassing loss to South Carolina and then ducked the media afterwards claiming he had to do his radio show. As if the media wouldn’t have waited until he finished his (paid) radio bit.

Calipari just turned 55. He’s been a great recruiter and, in my opinion, an underrated coach — because people focus on the talent he always has — for most of his career. He’s also often underrated, I think, as a person because he comes across as so slick.

When I was involved in launching a charity basketball tournament in 1995, John’s UMass team was ranked No. 1 in the nation. He agreed to bring the Minutemen to Washington to play Maryland and helped launch what became a very successful event. This past year he was elected to the NABC Board of Directors. A number of coaches objected — based on what happened at UMass and Memphis — but those who serve with him say unanimously he is thoughtful, involved and takes the job very seriously.

All that said, when I look at him now, blaming everyone but himself for his own failings, I think of something that Paul Evans, his old boss at Pitt once said about Rollie Massimino.

Evans and Massimino were never — to put it mildly — friends. But after Massimino left Villanova in 1992 with a good deal of bad feelings (since repaired by Jay Wright) in both directions, Evans said this: “After he won the national championship in 1985, I think Rollie kind of fell in love with himself.”

Harsh words, but sometimes there’s truth in harsh words. Looking at Calipari now and remembering the smart, eager, honest young coach I hung out with all those years ago, I can’t help but wonder if those words don’t also apply to him.

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