John Clay: Calipari's legacy speaks for itself

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 6, 2014 

  • Kentucky on top

    Since John Calipari's arrival in 2009-10, Kentucky is 18-2 in NCAA Tournament games. The Wildcats have won more NCAA Tournament games than any other team during that period:

    Kentucky 18

    Florida 13

    Kansas 12

    Louisville 12

    Butler 11

    Connecticut 11

    Duke 11

    Ohio State 11

    Syracuse 11

ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky added one more surprise to its NCAA Tournament run on Sunday.

It wasn't another Aaron Harrison three-pointer. It wasn't a key Julius Randle rebound or a tough Alex Poythress stop or another dramatic win. It came from the controversial head coach.

Given John Calipari's polarizing personality and the criticism his team has encountered, the Kentucky coach was expected to tote the told-you-so's to the news conference previewing Monday night's national championship game versus Connecticut.

Didn't happen. The phrase never crossed his lips. Having won five tournament games by slim margins — three by three points or fewer — Calipari appeared grateful to be right here, right now, in this blessed spot.

"I'm just glad we're still playing," he said.

We have entered rarefied air here.

After Saturday's win over Wisconsin, Calipari is 18-2 at Kentucky in NCAA Tournament games. This is his fifth career Final Four (two of those vacated), and his third in four years. Monday night, he coaches in his third NCAA championship game, his second in three years.

If the Cinderella story that is No. 8 seed Kentucky (eight national titles) can beat the Cinderella that is No. 7 seed Connecticut (three national titles), Calipari will have passed a certain Michael Krzyzewski in NCAA Tournament winning percentage among active coaches.

He also will join Adolph Rupp as the only other Kentucky coach to win multiple national championships.

"That doesn't mean anything to me," Calipari said Sunday. "Let me do right by my players."

It means everything to Kentucky. History matters, especially basketball history.

"Everyone says he's a great motivator," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who was a player with the Philadelphia 76ers when Calipari was an assistant there under Larry Brown. "Yeah, but he's a great coach, too."

The proof is in the precious present. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, that 2012 title team was believable. This team has been unbelievable.

Toes were stubbed. Losses were taken. Frowns all around. At times, it appeared the patron saint of the one-and-done — succeed and proceed — was championing a lost cause.

Calipari keeps saying he believed all along, but he had to have wondered at times, maybe even wavered. He won't admit that, of course. And in the end, he made the point moot. He found a way to pull this team through.

There was a telling moment in the Midwest Regional finals win over Michigan. Marcus Lee, his rarely used freshman, had just blown by the Wolverines for an easy basket off the dribble.

A corner of the eye caught Calipari standing on Lucas Oil Stadium's raised floor. The coach was grinning. It was a can-you-believe-this kind of grin.

Now here he sits, the man with a green thumb, starting five blossoming freshmen, inviting Fab Five comparisons, 40 minutes from a national title, 40 minutes from vindication he won't admit to — at least not publicly.

"He always tells us that they say that we can't do this, that we're not supposed to be in this position with so many young guys," injured UK center Willie Cauley-Stein said Sunday. "He's coaching for that. Not only for us as individual players, but outside of basketball, too. His whole life, he's been told he couldn't do something, and he's doing it."

To appreciate Calipari now, you must remember Calipari back when. He grew up working-class in Pittsburgh. His first head coaching job was at UMass. Fired from the NBA's New Jersey Nets, he landed at Memphis, a school with basketball tradition but without a major-conference affiliation. He lived in scramble mode.

Now, he has reached the summit. In the past five years, at least, no coach has dominated college basketball like John Calipari. Not in recruiting. Not in headlines. Not in victories.

Better still, he has reached a place where even he doesn't have to say it, a place where his success speaks for itself.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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