Before he became Grand Poohbah of Kentucky basketball, before he revitalized Memphis basketball, before he breathed life into UMass basketball (perhaps the most miraculous act in the history of the sport), John Calipari was a novice coaching wannabe.
Calipari broke into the business as a graduate assistant at Kansas in the early 1980s. As he has noted, his duties included spooning out peas and carrots to players in line at the cafeteria. He was much more anonymous than, ahem, a sportswriter covering the team.
As unlikely as it might seem, many of the giants striding the sidelines today began as office gofers.
Marshall University Director of Athletics Mike Hamrick knew this Calipari at Kansas. This was Calipari before CoachCal.com, players first, bounce back, one-and-done, succeed-and-proceed, Hoops for Haiti, we-are-college-basketball speeches, etc., etc.
"I knew he'd be a great coach," Hamrick said last week before a meeting of the Lexington chapter of the Marshall alumni association.
How did he know?
"He just had it," Hamrick said.
Calipari, then in his early 20s, practically radiated ambition and a willingness to do whatever it took.
Hamrick, who once played linebacker at Marshall, was the low man in the Kansas athletic administration hierarchy. An assistant A.D., he could identify with the low man in the basketball office.
The two regularly played noon-time pickup games. (Calipari wasn't much of a basketball player, but he was a tenacious competitor, Hamrick said as he slid an elbow into an imaginary opponent's ribs.)
One day after the pickup games, several players decided to go to lunch. The group included Calipari, Hamrick and assistant coaches Bob Hill and Ed Manning (the father of Danny Manning).
Kansas Coach Larry Brown's booming voice brought the plans to a halt.
"Calipari!" he called. "Come here."
As Calipari turned and headed toward Brown's desk, the Kansas coach tossed him his car keys.
"Go get my laundry," Brown said, "and let my dog out."
Calipari then turned to his would-be lunch companions and said, "Well, boys, I guess I'm not going to lunch."
Hamrick, who calls this his favorite Calipari story, considers it significant.
"I knew he was going to be great," Hamrick said. "He said, 'Yes, sir.'"
Rooting against UK
During the recent NBA Combine, former Florida big man Patric Young said he was hoping UConn would beat Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament championship game. When asked by Seth Davis how he dealt with Florida's loss to UConn in the national semifinals, Young said:
"Well, you know, I hate to say it, but I was really happy Kentucky did not win it all because we beat them three times during the year. It would have been like a kick in the mouth if they were able to win it all again."
Here's more from the Davis-Young conversation as recorded by College Insiders:
Q: You entered Florida four years ago as a McDonald's All-American and expected to be a so-called one-and-done player. You left this spring perceived as an under-appreciated glue guy. What was that transformation like?
A: "I had to realize there's a lot of work I'm going to have to put in. First of all, to earn Coach (Billy) Donovan's trust. As far as he was concerned, I hadn't done a thing yet to even deserve to be on the court."
Q: Does four years of college mean failure as a player?
A: "I'm here (at the Combine) right now. And I'm doing what I love. This is my life. I'm thinking of the future. I'm thinking of when I'm done playing basketball. Hopefully, I can be in your chair some day."
Q: How can the hype surrounding high school/summer basketball mess with a player's head?
A: "The intention of giving guys all the hype and seeing the potential in them is not to put the expectation level on them. But that's what happens. That's what comes with the territory of having this great skill and talent. ... They're expected to play well every game. If they don't, 'Oh, this guy isn't this (and) 'he isn't that.'"
Q: How have you handled the process going into this year's NBA Draft?
A: "You've got to get away from it at first. That's the No. 1 thing. You've got to go fishing. That's what I did."
Q: You hired an agent who has you training at the IMG Academy. How do you view yourself as a NBA prospect?
A: "I believe that I only scratched the surface of my potential at Florida. I believe with my frame and my quickness and my ability to defend and understand the game, there's so much more I can do at the next level."
Rigot as guide
To be a first-time college head coach at age 66 might be unprecedented. That's where Dan D'Antoni finds himself. Marshall, his alma mater, hired D'Antoni to, as Director of Athletics Mike Hamrick put it, "shock" the program.
The Cam Henderson Center, which has a capacity of 9,043, was only about half full for most home games last season (average attendance: 4,713) as the Thunderding Herd sloughed to an 11-22 record.
On a tour stop in Lexington last week, Hamrick told alums he had another man in mind for the job.
"I'll be honest," Hamrick told an audience dressed mostly in green. "I couldn't get his brother, so I settled for Dan."
Of course, the brother is former Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni.
"But that's OK," Dan said of being a second choice. "I told him, you get one D'Antoni, you get them all, anyway."
Dan, who turns 67 on July 9, looks at least 10 years younger. Dressed in black and sporting a full head of hair, he seemed trim and vigorous. Having not coached in college since working on the Marshall staff in 1970-71, he acknowledged he needs help familiarizing himself with basketball at this level.
That's one reason he hired former UK assistant Scott Rigot.
"He's very experienced," D'Antoni said. "Obviously, he can guide me through some landmines."
Rigot, who got recommendations from former bosses George Felton and Tubby Smith, can also help Marshall's recruiting. He worked in Asia two years ago and Europe this past year. Marshall announced the signing of a player from Serbia last week.
D'Antoni was already acquainted with Rigot. When Rigot was head coach at Spartanburg Methodist College in the 1990s, he recruited two of D'Antoni's players at Socastes High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"Surely there's some adjustment," D'Antoni said. "But it's not as much as people want to perceive."
It can't hurt that D'Antoni can cite familiarity with the NBA. As a member of his brother's staffs with the Suns, Knicks and Lakers, he worked to develop such players as Jeremy Lin, David Lee, Landry Fields and Jarrod Jeffries. He hired another such player, ex-Duke standout Chris Duhon, to the Marshall staff.
"I learned from them and, hopefully, they learned from me," he said. "I hope to carry that into (recruiting) the high school ranks."
Marshall, which lost 41 games the past two seasons, hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament since 1987.
Once an undersized guard who willed himself to success at Marshall in the 1960s, D'Antoni bristled when asked what the ceiling was for success at Marshall.
"You're asking the wrong guy because all my life people have tried to put ceilings on top of me," he said. "And I've never looked up. I don't see ceilings."
To the family of Don Meyer, a longtime college coach who died last Sunday at age 69.
Meyer, who won 923 games as a college coach for Hamline, Lipscomb and Northern State, stressed fundamentals. He also required his players to keep a record of what they learned.
"You can be competitive like a mad dog in a meat house, and all you're going to get is a bullet between the eyes eventually," Sports Illustrated quoted him as saying. "But if you're a mad dog that's smart, you're going to be OK."
In 2011, Meyer spoke at the annual meeting of the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches. He brought his lifetime of coaching experience to the hot topic of the time: the ongoing shuffle of college teams in conferences.
"We're all disgusted, I know, with what's going on in the leagues," he told the coaches.
After concluding his riveting speech, Meyer elaborated on what's known in polite circles as conference realignment.
"It's just an example of greed, and the fact college athletics is a professional thing, now," he said.
Meyer noted the influence of TV money, particularly ESPN's ownership of the Texas Longhorn network, which convulsed the Big 12 Conference. What are other Big 12 athletic programs supposed to think when Texas hoards money from its own TV network.
"I'm not a socialist," Meyer said, "but you've got to be fair about it."
Championship or bust?
In his weekly commentary on NPR, Frank Deford noted how judging athletic careers has changed. Championships are a be-all/end-all. The label of best player not to win a championship (or best coach not to be in a Final Four or win a NCAA Tournament) has taken on the hint of a putdown in an increasingly championship-or-bust sports culture.
Kevin Durant is the latest player who somehow needs a NBA championship.
"There used to be great sympathy for players like Ted Williams or Elgin Baylor or even Ty Cobb, when, however great they were, year after year, better teams beat their teams," Deford said. "It's unfair that sometimes the best athletes can't lead their lesser teammates to victory. ...
"Someday — maybe even this year — Kevin Durant might be a champion. He deserves it. But we must not define personal greatness by the company it is forced to keep."
Marshall added 6-foot-5 point guard Aleksa Nikolic to its roster last week. A native of Pancevo, Serbia, Nikolic averaged more than 20 points, six rebounds and eight assists for a junior club team.
"He plays a little bit like Pete Maravich," Marshall's new coach, Dan D'Antoni, said at an alumni gathering in Lexington. "Even if we don't win any games, it'll be exciting."
More seriously, D'Antoni noted how players from outside the United States play with a more instinctive, devil-may-care attitude.
"American players are conservative in what they do," he said, "because the coach will get mad at them."
To Cedric Jenkins. He turns 48 today. ... To Rob Lock. He turned 48 Thursday. ... To Ed Davender. He turns 48 on Monday.