John Clay

Sorry Memphis, but John Calipari has been the perfect fit for Kentucky

Coach Calipari previews UCLA

Kentucky, 31-5, will take on UCLA, 31-4, in Friday night's Sweet 16 game.
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Kentucky, 31-5, will take on UCLA, 31-4, in Friday night's Sweet 16 game.

Dear Memphis: Thanks for the warnings.

Turns out, we didn’t need them.

We understand. When John Calipari left your fair city to become the head basketball coach at Kentucky, you felt abandoned. You said things in spite. You warned that Calipari, the coach you once adored, was reckless with the rules. You said he recruited unsavory characters. You predicted Kentucky would be sorry.

Guess what. Kentucky isn’t sorry.

“It’s always great when you hire somebody who exceeds expectations,” Lee Todd, the former UK president who hired Calipari said Thursday. “He certainly did.”

Calipari is in Memphis for the first time as a coach since leaving the hometown school for the University of Kentucky. His Cats, No. 2 seed in the South Region, play No. 3 UCLA in a Sweet 16 game Friday night in the FedExForum. Tip-off is set for 9:39 p.m. CBS has the telecast.

So this seems an appropriate time to ask: How much of what Kentucky thought it was getting in John Calipari, or was told it was getting in John Calipari, did it actually get?

After UK and Tubby Smith parted ways in 2007, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart broached the idea of hiring Calipari. Todd said no. When Billy Gillispie crashed and burned two years later, Todd agreed to sit down in Chicago and talk to Calipari. Todd had questions — questions about baggage.

“I was concerned with some of the players with bogus high school degrees from some of those schools,” Todd said Thursday. “He said that in his conference if he didn’t recruit those players he would coach against those players. He said at Kentucky, ‘I want to recruit the same players that Duke and North Carolina and Kansas recruit, and I can get them.’ And he was right.”

Todd admits he was concerned about the investigation into Derrick Rose’s eligibility at Memphis, but Barnhart received assurances from the NCAA that Calipari was OK. Instead, Todd was struck by something else. At the end of the interview, UK associate AD Rob Mullens asked about a player Calipari coached 10 years prior. Calipari knew where the player lived, where he worked.

After the meeting, Todd called Mike Slive. The SEC commissioner, who had known Calipari during his time as head of Conference USA, said the league needed Kentucky to be Kentucky again in basketball. Calipari would make it so, “but you might have a knot in your stomach for a couple of years.”

If so, the knot quickly dissipated. There have been no serious NCAA questions. No serious off-the-court problems. Kentucky’s latest Academic Progress Rate score was a perfect 1,000.

It’s always great when you hire somebody who exceeds expectations. He certainly did.

Former UK president Lee Todd on John Calipari

Yes, Calipari recruits one-and-dones. Now everyone does one-and-done. Blue bloods do one-and-done. Duke does one-and-done. UCLA does one-and-done. It’s not just for Calipari anymore.

“And this job is more than just coaching,” Todd said.

He remembers the last time he spoke at an athletic event while UK’s president. It was at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Calipari was there. He ate a salad, spoke to the group, then went around the room signing autographs. When it was Todd’s turn to speak, he asked for a show of hands from people who had something signed by the basketball coach.

“I think 80 percent of the room held up its hands. I’ve never seen a guy with his energy,” Todd said. “You hire somebody to do the job, but then some people own the job. He’s really owned the job.”

Maybe the job has changed Calipari. He’s older, so old (58) he jokes he repeats the same stories. Or it could be objects are often fuzzy from a distance. Todd says he semi-joked with Calipari his opinion of the coach changed by 50 percent after that Chicago meeting. It has changed 100 percent now.

Is Calipari perfect? Of course not. Like Kentucky basketball, he’s not for everyone. He’s been the perfect fit for Kentucky, however. He’s won a national championship and been to four Final Fours in seven years at UK. A win Friday would mean his sixth Elite Eight in eight years.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Todd said.

John Calipari’s college coaching record

Season

School

Record

Conference

NCAA tourney

1988-89

UMass

10-18

6-13

1989-90

UMass

17-14

10-8

1990-91

UMass

20-13

10-8

1991-92

UMass

30-5

13-3

Sweet 16

1992-93

UMass

24-7

11-3

Second round

1993-94

UMass

28-7

14-2

Second round

1994-95

UMass

29-5

13-3

Elite Eight

1995-96

UMass

31-1

15-1

Final Four

2000-01

Memphis

21-15

10-6

2001-02

Memphis

27-9

12-4

2002-03

Memphis

23-7

13-3

First round

2003-04

Memphis

22-8

12-4

Second round

2004-05

Memphis

22-16

9-7

2005-06

Memphis

33-4

13-1

Elite Eight

2006-07

Memphis

33-4

16-0

Elite Eight

2007-08

Memphis

38-2

16-0

Runner up

2008-09

Memphis

33-4

16-0

Sweet 16

2009-10

Kentucky

35-3

114-2

Elite Eight

2010-11

Kentucky

29-9

10-6

Final Four

2011-12

Kentucky

38-2

16-0

NCAA Champions

2012-13

Kentucky

21-12

12-6

2013-14

Kentucky

29-11

12-6

Runner up

2014-15

Kentucky

38-1

18-0

Final Four

2015-16

Kentucky

27-9

13-5

Second round

2016-17

Kentucky

30-5

16-2

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