Caliparanoia? Kentucky's coach needs enemies to fuel his success

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 6, 2014 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari wanted a call from official Ted Valentine, as #14 Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 72-61 on Saturday January 11, 2014 in Nashville, TN. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

HERALD LEADER

John Calipari returned to a familiar theme after Kentucky beat Ole Miss on Tuesday. He made headlines by suggesting that the UK players were not only overanalyzed, but victims of an unacknowledged anti-UK basketball bias.

"You think it's opinion," Calipari said of media coverage and commentary. "Most cases it's the hope of the writer. It's not their opinion."

The suggestion of shadowy forces trying to thwart his efforts is a common theme in Calipari's career. From Massachusetts, where he debuted as a head coach at age 29, through time with the New Jersey Nets, Memphis and now Kentucky, he's compiled an enemies list that would make Richard Nixon proud.

The Boston Globe, which reported on classroom performance by UMass players. The Nets' front office, which supposedly planted listening devices in his office. The Ratings Percentage Index, which did not give Memphis its due. The E.W. Scripps Company, which is headquartered in — aha — Cincinnati, home city of a Memphis rival. The Southeastern Conference, which sought to snuff out competition from Memphis. And, most recently, media types that wish UK and its coach ill.

Even his greatest professional achievement, guiding Kentucky to the 2012 national championship, failed to dull Calipari's sense for subterfuge.

"There's a lot of people not rooting for us and me, would you agree?" Calipari asked reporters in the summer of 2012. "Am I paranoid or is that the truth?"

Even Calipari's friends say he's paranoid in the sense of perceiving many threats to his own and his teams' success.

"I always tell John this: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people are not out to get you," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a Calipari friend for decades. "John operates best when he feels people are out to get him. ... It's what drives him."

Auburn Coach Tony Barbee, who played for Calipari at UMass and worked on his staff at Memphis, famously said much the same thing. "He needs the waters real muddy and rough," Barbee said. "... If the water is calm, he stirs it up."

Calipari is hardly alone among coaches who say they see bogeymen around every corner of the court. How many coaches whistle while they work, stop to smell the roses and welcome competition as a way to further hone their skills?

"I would say coaches, by nature, are somewhat paranoid," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "It's just the nature of coaches to worry about somebody else having a competitive advantage. Sometimes competitiveness breeds contempt or paranoia.

"We're worried. We're paranoid. We're all worried we're not going to win every game."

Florida Coach Billy Donovan said that age eased, if not quelled his anxiety.

"I was probably more paranoid when I was younger," he said. "You're trying to prove yourself."

While age made Donovan realize paranoia got in the way of success, he said, "There's always a little bit of paranoia."

There can be good reason for concern, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. Successful college programs like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and UCLA, and professional dynasties like the New York Yankees create disdain as well as admiration. What Bilas called a "gotcha culture" enhances the desire to prove the sporting emperors have no clothes.

Mistrust marked Calipari's career at each job.

Marty Dobrow, who chronicled how Calipari put Massachusetts on the basketball map in the book Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball, noted how Calipari viewed image and perception as critically important. The Globe story on academic underachievement "personally humiliated" Calipari, who sought revenge by cultivating a relationship with the rival Boston Herald, Dobrow said.

An enduring theme emerged.

"He's been able to ride that us-versus-them thing to a lot of success," Dobrow said. "He's able to rally his troops."

Calipari left UMass in 1996 to become coach of the New Jersey Nets. He lasted two seasons and 20 games, plenty of time to form the makings of a John le Carré novel.

Most famously, Calipari suggested that the Nets' front office bugged office phones in hopes of building a case for his dismissal.

"I heard that from some of John's staff that John thought people upstairs were trying to check out what he was doing," said Michael Rowe, then president of the Nets and executive vice president of the Meadowlands Sports Complex.

The Nets fired Calipari after his third season began with three victories and 17 losses.

"Nobody was bugging his phone or sneaking into practice," Rowe said before adding, "I say that with great sadness."

The Nets gave Calipari total control to guide the team, so the franchise had a vested interest in his success, Rowe said. "We wanted to sink or swim with him. Unfortunately, we got wet."

A return to college coaching at Memphis resurrected Calipari's career. It also created new suspicions.

Gary Parrish, who covered Memphis for The Commercial Appeal, noted how Calipari suspected unfair treatment by the Ratings Percentage Index, a system for judging teams based solely on uncaring numbers.

"He was convinced there was a RPI guy and he hated Memphis," Parrish said. "You couldn't explain to him that the RPI was a formula. It may be a flawed formula, but it's a formula. John was convinced the guy putting in the numbers was trying to hurt his program."

Calipari also saw ulterior motives in critical columns by Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal, Parrish said. This was born from the fact that the E.W. Scripps Company owned newspapers in Memphis and Cincinnati.

"He was convinced Geoff Calkins was coming down hard on him because The Commercial Appeal was owned by 'Scripps Howard' (the former name of the company)," Parrish said. "Cincinnati fans were leaning on 'Scripps Howard' to get the Memphis columnist to be hard on John Calipari. That's as paranoid as you can get. ...

"John has a lot of terrific qualities. Anybody who knows him, even his friends, would tell you he is paranoid by design. That doesn't mean he hasn't been right about some things. It's just that oftentimes he sees conspiracies when they simply don't exist."

Calkins said that "very, very lukewarm, slightly critical columns" made him an enemy.

"I kind of got the sense he needed an enemy, so I became an enemy," Calkins said. "But I do think enemies fuel him."

Calkins suggested Calipari was the ideal coach in the city of Memphis, whose populace largely saw as unfriendly such entities as Nashville, the University of Tennessee, the SEC and The Commercial Appeal.

"John Calipari was a total hit here," Calkins said, "because he was a paranoid guy in a paranoid city."

His arrival at Kentucky in 2009 stripped Calipari of the underdog role. Although he recoiled at the suggestion at his introductory news conference, it's hard to be perceived as an overachieving mom-and-pop operation while also declaring how "hundreds of millions" care about UK basketball. After all, Calipari said Kentucky is college basketball.

But Kentucky really is not college basketball. There are other teams. Kentucky needs those teams. His friends and perceived enemies say Calipari needs that "other," even if he has to conjure it out of thin air.

"John competes best when the world is against him," Fraschilla said. "In order to be competitive, you have to have a competitor to compete against, real or imagined."

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

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