About 60 fans of Clarion University's basketball team planned to board a bus at around 7 this morning and take a seven-hour ride from the Pittsburgh area to Lexington. They want to see their beloved Golden Eagles play at mighty Kentucky on Friday night and, perhaps more importantly, see a favorite son, Kentucky Coach John Calipari.
"It's a win-win for everybody," Clarion Coach Ron Righter said.
Those expected on the bus included Joe DeGregorio, who coached Calipari at Clarion in the early 1980s, and Bill Sacco, who coached him a few years earlier at Moon High School in the Pittsburgh area.
Several of Calipari's former Clarion teammates were supposed to be on the bus, too. One of those teammates, Jeff Szumigale, explained why.
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"No. 1, Cal's the same kid I played basketball with 30 years ago," he said. "He has every right to have changed based on his success, his notoriety and his celebrity. To us, he hasn't. We can bust on each other. No harm, no foul."
When it comes to busting in the sense of sporting jocularity, DeGregorio comes fully armed. Calipari clearly rates as one of his favorite former players, which qualifies him for a friendly needle.
Having recently read Calipari's self-help book, Bounce Back, which, in part, detailed how he recovered from being fired by the New Jersey Nets, DeGregorio said, "I told him, 'It's easy to bounce back from losing your job when you have $5 million in the bank.' "
Calipari sent his former college coach a copy of UK's media guide, which DeGregorio noticed was light years removed from Clarion's 10-page packet of the early 1980s.
"I told him, 'Your picture is in there about 10 times,' " DeGregorio said. " 'I thought that one of you walking on water was a little over the top.' "
No arms had to be twisted to get anyone to talk about Calipari. Of course, he grew up next to the high school and became a ball boy in the fifth grade, as Sacco recalled. The high school coach had a rule that the traveling party wear ties, so Calipari, the ball boy, wore a tie.
By high school age, Calipari was the metaphorical gym rat. Sacco fielded calls — at least 15 — from his athletic director alarmed that some kid had gotten into the gym after hours to shoot.
"That's a good thing," Sacco kept telling the athletic director.
Sacco described Calipari the high school player as "kind of an organizer." After the team won only five games in Calipari's sophomore year, he organized a busy summer schedule that led to individual improvement and more team cohesion. Moon High won 17 games the next season.
"There's no magic formula," Sacco said. "The kids put in a lot of work. We kind of learned how to win. Ninety percent of them are still real close to him."
DeGregorio watched Calipari play at least 10 times and wanted him to be Clarion's point guard. But Calipari set his sights higher than the Division II school about a 90-minute drive northeast of Pittsburgh.
"Every time you're talking to a kid, they all want to get to Division I," the former Clarion coach said. "No matter if it's on the moon, they'd go to Division I."
Calipari went to UNC-Wilmington, where he grew to suspect the coach wanted his organizational skills more than his on-court talent.
"John called and said, 'Get me to Clarion,' " Sacco said.
One call did the trick.
"Bill tells me, 'I got a point guard for you,' " DeGregorio said. "I said, 'If it's Calipari, I want him.' "
At Clarion, Calipari was a pass-first point guard who breathed life into the cliche of a coach on the floor.
"The old saying was point guards are a dime a dozen," DeGregorio said. "Well, point guards who know what they're doing are not a dime a dozen. He had a great feel for the game and he knew how the game was supposed to be played."
Szumigale recalled how Calipari would spice up off-season pickup games by drawing up plays. He also noted Calipari's bulldog approach to one-on-one games with his taller teammate.
"I'm 6-4," Szumigale said. "He's 6-foot, 6-1, he's generous."
How did Calipari take to losing in pickup games? "He had a little bit of a Larry Bird mentality," Szumigale said. "You don't lose. You just keep playing."
Calipari showed his toughness in his first season for Clarion when he continued playing despite a fractured cheekbone. He wore a reinforced mask loaned by the school's wrestling program.
In talking about Calipari, the word "entrepreneur" came up more than once.
While attending Clarion, Calipari ran a summer basketball camp at Moon High School. With those proceeds, he bought two trailers and moved them to campus. He rented one and lived in the other.
"After they fully depreciated, he donated them to the school," Szumigale said. "He took full advantage of the income until it didn't make tax sense anymore. Then he donated them and took a full deduction."
Ken Traynor, then a professor of marketing at Clarion, remembered Calipari as an "A-B student" who seemed a natural salesman.
"John was always very charming and very polite and a mannerly type person," Traynor said. "He kind of knew what to say and what to do."
DeGregorio made a tradition of inviting each season's players to dinner. Calipari was one of the few, if only, players to write a thank-you note.
"How many guys would do that?" the former Clarion coach said. "John's always a step ahead."