UK Men's Basketball

Can-Do Cal

As a young assistant coach in 1988, John Calipari burst into his interview for the University of Massachusetts head coaching job hauling notebooks that outlined his plan to remake a beleaguered basketball program on and off the court.

He even laid the groundwork for the interview in Amherst by making the unusual move of calling UMass athletics department staff to introduce himself and ask for their support.

That preparation and commitment wowed officials who had brought in some other big names who have become coaching luminaries, such as Texas' Rick Barnes and eventual NBA coach Stu Jackson.

"He came into that interview and absolutely blew the search committee away," said Glenn Wong, a professor of sports management at UMass who served on the panel.

Calipari's sales pitch didn't stop with the hiring, Wong said. A year later, Calipari called the search committee back and handed them a report on how the program fared compared with what he laid out in his job interview.

Measuring success goes beyond a win-loss record, those who have been around Calipari in Amherst and Memphis say.

That includes mingling with fans, courting boosters, suggesting marketing strategies, trying to bolster the players' academic performances and investing in the community.

"It indicates his passion for the program and goal to make the whole program succeed," said Wong, who served as interim athletics director at one point during Calipari's eight seasons at UMass.

In that time, Calipari took the program from a 10-win team to a national championship contender.

Calipari said when he was introduced Wednesday as the University of Kentucky's new men's basketball coach that he understands how high the on-court expectations are at Kentucky. But he said he still believes running a basketball program comes with broader responsibilities.

"I also make a commitment to create an environment that fosters discipline," he said. "And most importantly, my job is to hold players accountable on and off the court."

A people person

Calipari has attracted much attention over the years for his colorful quotes and big personality.

"Although he's flashy and can be brash, he's also got this other side I've seen these last couple years," said Randy Fishman, a Memphis lawyer and a university athletic advisory board member.

Fishman said he once mentioned to Calipari that a good friend was very ill.

"He called him to cheer him up," Fishman said. "He does a lot of things that don't show up in the newspaper."

Calipari keeps up with his former players and colleagues even after they part ways.

He made a surprise visit to Amherst in February 2006 when UMass dedicated its court to former coach and broadcaster Jim Lehman.

And UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said he was impressed with Calipari when, at the end of his job interview over the weekend, he was able to list the whereabouts of the players from one of his early UMass teams.

That personal connection is often what endears him to the die-hard fans and donors.

"The boosters love him because he knows them. He takes time to talk to them. He knows their grandchildren's names, and he asks about their children," Wong said.

Calipari showed glimpses of that Wednesday. He acknowledged the one-year anniversary of the death of beloved UK equipment manager Bill Keightley, pointed out Herky Rupp in the room and recognized former UK player Richie Farmer as the state's agriculture commissioner.

Engaging the community

Calipari is not the type of coach to remain confined in the gym.

When he found the UMass program almost demoralized in the late 1980s, Calipari embarked on a one-man campaign to fire up students.

"He went into dormitories, and went into the fraternity houses. He wanted kids to have cut-off basketballs on their heads and painted faces," said Howard Davis, who served as Calipari's first sports information director. "Nobody ever heard of that at UMass. He really generated a lot of enthusiasm."

To engage families, he created a group at UMass, the Mini Minutemen, for dozens of 5- to 12-year-olds to practice ball handling skills with the college coaches and perform during halftimes, Wong said.

Supporters also praised Calipari's community and university involvement in Amherst and Memphis.

Former UMass-Amherst chancellor David K. Scott recalled that Calipari made a "six-figure donation" to the university's library.

Each year, he has raised money at his Memphis home for scholarships and held political fund-raisers for both Republican and Democratic candidates who were big supporters of the university, said Harold Byrd, a Memphis-area banker and booster.

The coach formed the Calipari Family Foundation for Children.

And in 2007, Calipari expanded his reach to the basketball community in China by establishing a series of coaching clinics.

All the while, he's managed to keep tabs on nearly every facet of his program.

"He's fantastic on the details," said Jim Hillhouse, a board member of Memphis' booster club.

For instance, seven hours before last month's student-athlete award ceremony at Memphis' Peabody Hotel, Calipari stopped in to check on arrangements. He ended up suggesting to move the pre-ceremony reception to the hotel's roof, Hillhouse said.

The academic side

Both the NCAA and UK administrators have increased their focus on their athletes' grades in recent years.

The NCAA measures student academic performance through a complex formula that takes into account eligibility, retention and graduation rates. A score of 925 in that formula is considered the NCAA's minimum bar and is roughly the equivalent of a 60 percent graduation rate.

The Memphis men's basketball team scored just above that threshold at 927 during the 2003-2007 time frame, according to the NCAA. That put the team slightly below the middle of the pack among men's basketball programs.

The UK team's score was slightly better at 941.

"We're not where I want to be yet," said Todd, who said he specifically charged Calipari with raising that bar.

Calipari's contract, for instance, calls for a $50,000 bonus if 75 percent of a class graduates.

His supporters said that as long as he brings the same level of energy and commitment to UK as he has shown in the past, Calipari can accomplish perhaps the trickiest task of all: satisfying the hungry Big Blue Nation.

"Overall, with what he has done with the attendance and with the fans, as well as the wins, people will remember him as being one of the great coaches here," said Don Mc Kinnon, a former Memphis football player and athletics supporter. "Fans love him."

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