Calipari's biggest worry now? How to enjoy the title

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 3, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — With the clock nearing midnight, Kentucky Coach John Calipari relished the thought of questions about his never having won a national championship turning into a metaphorical pumpkin.

"I don't have to hear the drama," he said after UK beat Kansas 67-59 in the NCAA Tournament championship game late Monday night. "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.'"

Calipari looked tired, if not sleepy, as he fielded questions in the formal news conference. The victory ended a quest that began in October. Given Kentucky's never-ending quest for pre-eminence, perhaps it began in 1998, when UK last raised a championship banner.

"I'm really tired, to be honest with you," Calipari told reporters. "I'm hoping you guys stop asking questions so I can go back to the hotel."

Of course, the questions never end at Kentucky.

Maybe Billy Donovan, who began his coaching career as a UK assistant for Rick Pitino, had that in mind when he called Calipari on Tuesday.

"I talked more in terms of enjoying this," the Florida coach told Chris Harry, a sportswriter for GatorZone.com. "About how his internal peace and happiness can't be predicated on what you gain from this experience and how you go about enjoying it. And one of the hardest things about it, like I told him, is when you win it all and people say, 'Did you enjoy it?' Well, what do you do to enjoy it?"

In the immediate aftermath of the victory over Kansas, Calipari did not look ready to party like it was 1998. Old demons — the questions about relying on one-and-done players, or that perception that he's more recruiter than master strategist — seemed on Calipari's mind.

He suggested a double standard: one for coaches in general, something more impossible to reach for him.

"When you're at a non-BCS school your whole career and it's like, 'Why hasn't he won it?'" Calipari told reporters in a more informal gathering outside the UK locker room. "I've been at Kentucky three years, a BCS school. I guess I'm just different than everyone else. I should win wherever I am. We've had good teams, teams that have made runs and teams that were in the Final Four and I'm proud of all of those teams. This is the fourth team. We've had two teams win 38, the most wins in the history of college basketball."

Calipari acknowledged the anxiety that came with Kentucky being the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a solid favorite to beat Kansas.

"Know what I kept telling myself today? I'm normal," he said. "In my mind popped, 'What will I say if we lose? What will I say if we win?' Then I was like, 'What? Stop. Stay in the moment right now. Walk in that building and enjoy yourself. You're coaching the best team in the country. You have the best players in the country. Why would you think after?'

"I just coached the team. We know we have a good team. Let's just go be as good as we can be. If that's not good enough, we'll deal with the results."

With that, Calipari could not resist reminding reporters that Kentucky became the first overall No. 1 seed to win the NCAA Tournament in 16 years.

Kansas Coach Bill Self said that Calipari was a championship coach, regardless of the outcome Monday. Coaching for Kentucky dramatically increased the odds that Calipari could put a championship on his résumé, if not Monday then someday.

"Absolutely, I thought he'd win a championship at Kentucky," Self said. "You know, you have resources. You have facilities. You have so many things going for you there where you recruit the level of players they've recruited."

Calipari joined Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith as UK coaches who've won NCAA Tournament championships.

Calipari deflected any and all media invitations to take personal satisfaction in this championship. But he did note how he appreciated the players wanting to give him a title.

"You get emotional when they say they did it for me, 'They wanted me to win one.'" he said. "I told my wife, it's over now. I don't need the drama of you guys saying, 'You've never won one.' I can now coach my team and do what I do for young people and don't have to worry about it."

No drama, perhaps. But as Donovan suggested, Calipari needs to enjoy the title.

When asked about his father, Vince, attending the Final Four, Calipari mentioned his mother, who died of cancer in November 2010: "I hugged him and said, 'I bet ya Mom loves this.'"

That sounded like a good way to start relishing Kentucky's 2011-12 season.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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