John Calipari, residue from that morning’s Ash Wednesday service smudged on his forehead, unbound his iPad’s leather case and showed a visiting reporter its gleaming sky-blue desktop.
“It’s never off,” he said. “Because I don’t know how to turn it off.”
Calipari, 58, Kentucky’s successful and controversial basketball coach, does not have a computer in his office overlooking the Wildcats’ practice gym. He does not know how to post Facebook updates or messages on Twitter. He does not, he said, even use email.
Yet Calipari, whose résumé at Kentucky includes four Final Fours, a national championship and a No. 2 seed in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, is the driving force behind several powerful media platforms — including a Twitter account with more than a million followers, a website and a popular weekly podcast. Collectively, these serve as a permanent branding campaign, a public record of his thoughts and actions, and a rapid-response mechanism for one of the sports world’s most in-demand and polarizing personalities.
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“We’re going to give out our message,” Calipari said this month, “but they’re also going to be able to see who I am, who my friends are, what I do, what I read — and it’s not filtered through anybody.”
Calipari has long sought to connect directly with fans and showcase his boisterous personality, said David R. Scott, the co-author of Calipari’s 2009 book, “Bounce Back,” and the founding editor of Calipari’s website, CoachCal.com. In an earlier era, Scott said, those connections were forged in small-group interactions; he recalled that Calipari, while coaching at the University of Massachusetts, delivered pizza to students waiting in line before games.
New technology has allowed Calipari to do the same type of thing, only on a much grander scale.
We’re going to give out our message. But they’re also going to be able to see who I am, who my friends are, what I do, what I read — and it’s not filtered through anybody.
Coach John Calipari
“His major was marketing,” said Scott, now a senior director in communications at ESPN, “and he’s used it every day of his life.”
The internet and social media have eliminated the costs of printing and distribution, making anyone a potential publisher. From political campaigns to corporations to celebrities, organizations or individuals that in the past depended on traditional media outlets for their messaging now communicate directly with voters, consumers and fans.
This autonomy is especially crucial for Calipari, who stands atop perhaps the most obsessed-over college sports program this side of Alabama football; who seeks a prominent public profile, at least partly to aid the all-important endeavor of recruiting; and who in the past, he acknowledges, has been fitted with the “black hat.”
His major was marketing, and he’s used it every day of his life.
David R. Scott, the co-author of Calipari’s 2009 book, “Bounce Back”
Notoriety and negative coverage have long trailed Calipari, a Hall of Fame coach known for his brash personality and disruptive methods, along with his teams’ consistent success. The NCAA vacated his Final Four runs with two previous teams, UMass and Memphis, and it takes only a few keystrokes to find someone criticizing his embrace of the so-called “one-and-done” strategy — recruiting talented prospects who expressly aspire to enter the NBA after a single season in college.
While in the past, Calipari said, he could not effectively combat reports or columns that cast him or his team in a bad light, that is no longer true.
“In the old days, you had to wait,” said Calipari, describing how he would respond to slights or what he viewed as misinformation earlier in his career. “You can get on a day later on the radio, but it’s too late. It’s already singed in their mind.”
Today — with the aid of full-time staff members in Kentucky’s sports information and image operations, who transcribe and publish the thoughts and musings of the tech-illiterate coach — things are different. “Now,” he said, “I can respond in 30 seconds.”
Calipari does not eschew traditional media availabilities, and even cooperated on a forthcoming ESPN documentary about his career. But his own megaphone is a big one. Calipari’s Twitter account has three times as many followers as the main one for Kentucky’s basketball program. More than 500,000 people follow his Facebook feed, and a quarter-million track his posts on Instagram.
Then there is CoachCal.com. It is not — like some other coach websites — a sleepy venue for occasional videos and links to articles posted elsewhere. Instead, it is an up-to-the-minute source for news, with its own de facto beat writer, Metz Camfield, and a certain, if limited, amount of exclusive access. (While the site is branded with Calipari’s image, it is owned by JMI Sports, Kentucky’s multimedia rights holder.) The site also has a personal blog with Calipari’s reflections on his team’s progress, celebrations of mentors and, of course, rebuttals to criticism.
The newest addition to Calipari Inc. is Cal Cast — Calipari’s podcast, a breakout by a major active coach. After only three months and 15 episodes, it has more than a million listens. Calipari has hosted fellow coaches, businessmen, basketball commentators and his good friend Drake. (His dream guest is another clamorous, technologically challenged one-man media machine; according to Calipari, President Donald Trump told a journalist whom Calipari declined to identify that he was open to appearing on the program.)
A case study in how Calipari can bypass the traditional news media came amid the firestorm that erupted after a 2014 Yahoo report that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had used his perch as U.S.A. Basketball’s head coach to recruit high school prospects.
All of these endeavors push a daily dose of the gospel according to Calipari. Wondering whether he truly cares about his players? A recent Instagram photograph showed the stat sheet that Calipari said he receives daily, detailing how his alumni are faring in the NBA. Want to know his philosophy? A “Recruiting Manifesto” emphasized Calipari’s “players-first” approach (foreshadowing “Players First,” one of two books Calipari has written with the writer Michael Sokolove in the past three years). Skeptical that he is following NCAA rules? A state-of-the-program rundown last year reminded readers that Calipari’s squads have among the highest graduation success rates of top teams.
A case study in how Calipari can bypass the traditional news media came amid the firestorm that erupted after a 2014 Yahoo report that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had used his perch as U.S.A. Basketball’s head coach to recruit high school prospects. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, then a Team U.S.A. assistant, said in response that Calipari had complained about the arrangement and added that Calipari’s protests seemed disingenuous since he had coached the Dominican Republic’s team — a job that might have helped secure the commitment of the star prospect Karl-Anthony Towns.
One day after Boeheim’s comments ran on Syracuse.com, Calipari, after appearing to respond via a snarky Twitter post, took to CoachCal.com to tell the world that he had called Boeheim (“We are friends”); to praise Krzyzewski’s stewardship of U.S.A. Basketball; and to say he did not “begrudge” any potential recruiting advantage.
Years later, Krzyzewski appeared as the guest on Cal Cast’s second episode. Calipari gushed about Krzyzewski’s triumphs with the national team, and the coaches bonded over their Catholic-influenced boyhoods and their affinity for legendary coaches. “Everybody’s going to be stunned,” Calipari said, “that we just talked for 30 minutes.”
It enables him to put his version of the story out exactly the way he wants to, as sanitized or unfiltered as he cares to.
Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor
Was it benign sincerity? Did Calipari have ulterior motives for staying on the good sides of U.S.A. Basketball and Krzyzewski? Either or both might be true — this month, U.S.A. Basketball announced that Calipari would coach the 19-and-under national team. But Calipari’s public stance was probably delivered more cleanly and persuasively than it would have been even through a sit-down with a friendly reporter.
“It enables him to put his version of the story out exactly the way he wants to, as sanitized or unfiltered as he cares to,” said Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor.
Calipari’s credibility is buttressed by all the things he publishes that have no obvious utility, whether it is a tribute to his family’s late German shepherd or CoachCal.com’s stream of updates on the team, written mostly by Camfield, a former Kentucky journalism major. Even the sponsor announcements Calipari reads during Cal Cast are disarmingly genuine, most of all the Blue Apron spots in which Calipari’s wife, Ellen, describes some delicious meal she has just cooked for her husband.
Jerry Tipton, the longtime Lexington Herald-Leader basketball beat reporter, said that Calipari’s platforms had an unavoidable bias. “Cal talks about ‘no filters,' which is fine,” Tipton said, “except it has the biggest filter of all: Coach Cal.”
But Calipari disputed this characterization. “It isn’t filter,” he said. “It’s transparent.”
“I’m not perfect, I’m a sinner — that’s why I’ve got my ash on my head,” Calipari said. But, he continued, “there were so many coaches in the old days that were painted with black hats, and there were guys painted with white hats that should have had black hats on.”
“I’m not trying to write my legacy — someone else will write my legacy,” he added. “But what I am is, I’m transparent, and you are not writing my legacy.”