John Clay

Ten Years of Coach Cal: The 10 best non-game moments

More from the series


Ten Years of Coach Cal

John Calipari’s first 10 years as head coach at the University of Kentucky were jam packed with memories. As Coach Cal embarks on his second decade under a newly signed “lifetime contract,” the Herald-Leader Sports staff voted on and ranked the biggest moments, best players, toughest losses, top recruits and more from the past 10 years and created this 12-part series.

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Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series of 12 stories ranking the most memorable moments, teams and players of John Calipari’s 10 years as University of Kentucky head coach. Rankings were compiled through voting conducted by members of the Herald-Leader Sports staff. Watch for a new story every day between today and July 27.

Not all of the memorable moments in John Calipari’s 10 years as Kentucky’s basketball coach have happened on the court.

Not by a long shot.

From the NBA Draft, to Big Blue Madness, to charity work, to postseason honors, to personalities, to controversies, to you name it, the one thing you can count on with Kentucky basketball under John Calipari is that there is always something going on.

Here are the top 10 off-the-court moments during John Calipari’s 10 years at Kentucky:

1. Hoops for Haiti. In 2010, UK raises $1.3 million with the Hoops for Haiti telethon, then gets a congratulatory call from President Obama. UK goes on to raise money in later years for Texas hurricane victims and Louisiana flood victims. But the Haiti telethon set the tone for Calipari’s charitable works. It also may have helped in recruiting Skal Labissiere, the starting center on the Cats’ 2015-16 team.

2. Banner No. 8. Kentucky raised championship banner No. 8 in front of a sold-out Rupp Arena celebration after winning it all in 2012. To Calipari, the five first-round picks in the 2010 NBA Draft was the greatest day in program history. To the fans, however, it’s all about the banners. UK’s first championship since Tubby Smith’s 1998 title team is the high-water mark of Calipari’s first 10 years.

3. The “John Wall Dance.” UK’s newest star introduced himself to Big Blue Nation by doing what became known as the “John Wall Dance” during Calipari’s first Big Blue Madness in 2009. After the crushing mediocrity of the final years of the Tubby Smith era, and the painful two-year Billy Gillispie mistake, UK basketball needed to be fun again. Wall’s dance got the party started.

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UK freshman John Wall danced, flexed and set off a sensation during the first Big Blue Madness of the John Calipari era.

4. Cal’s relationship with Joe B. Calipari’s ongoing respectful relationship with former UK coach Joe B. Hall that leads to Joe B. becoming a revered elder statesman for the program. Younger Kentucky basketball fans might be surprised to learn that Hall was not always such a popular figure with Big Blue Nation. Following Adolph Rupp will do that. But time heals all wounds. And Calipari’s loving treatment of the former UK coach has helped the fan base further appreciate Hall’s accomplishments.

5. Senior Night proposal. Derek Willis proposed to his girlfriend on Senior Night. She said yes. It was Feb. 28, 2017. Senior Night in the Calipari era has been a rare occasion anyway, but Willis made the night even more memorable when he popped the question to his longtime girlfriend Keely Potts after being introduced during pregame ceremonies. The two were married in August 2017. Willis is now playing professionally in Germany.

6. Historic 2010 NBA Draft. The Cats had five players picked in the first round of 2010 NBA Draft. John Wall was selected first overall by the Washington Wizards. DeMarcus Cousins was taken fifth overall by the Sacramento Kings. Patrick Pattson was selected No. 14 overall by the Houston Rockets. Eric Bledsoe was taken No. 18 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder, then traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. And Daniel Orton was drafted No. 29 overall by the Orlando Magic. Calipari called it the “greatest night in program history” which did not go over well with those who know program history. Still, in all, Calipari has had 29 of his Kentucky players taken in the first round. And 2010 got it started.

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Derek Willis proposed to Keely Potts during the Senior Night activities before the Cats’ game against Vanderbilt in 2017. Ken Weaver

7. Anthony Davis is consensus National Player of the Year in 2011-2012. The freshman center out of Chicago led the Wildcats to the national title that year. Believe it or not, even with Kentucky’s rich basketball tradition, Davis was the first Wildcat to win the Naismith Player of the Year Award. And he earned it, blocking 186 shots, which remains an NCAA freshman record. He blocked six shots on the way to winning MOP honors in the NCAA title game. He also improved offensively, averaging 15.3 points per game in the 2012 portion of the 2011-12 season.

8. UK2K. There was plenty of excitement surrounding UK2K, UK’s race to become the first school to win 2,000 games. That’s college basketball games. Being first in anything, especially anything associated with wins, is a big deal. How big a deal was UK2K? The morning after the historic win, Kennedy’s Book Store had received 1,500 orders for the “UK2K” shirt that the players wore after the 2009 game. Many, many more were sold after that. Kennedy’s Book Store is no longer around. But every once in awhile you still come across someone wearing one of those T-shirts.

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UK celebrated its 2,000th victory after defeating Drexel 88-44 on Dec. 21, 2009, in Rupp Arena. Jonathan Palmer

9. “Gold Standard.” Calipari promises Kentucky will become the “gold standard” of college basketball during his first state of the UK union address at Big Blue Madness in 2009. Calipari has always put his marketing degree to good use, but he has taken those skills to another level in Lexington. His Twitter account. His website. His charity work. And the addresses to the Big Blue Nation Calipari delivers during Madness usually pack a hyperbolic punch. As was the case with John Wall’s dance at Madness, Calipari’s first speech set the tone for what was to come.

10. Rick flips the bird. Rick Pitino appears to give UK fans the finger on the way out of Rupp Arena after a loss to UK in 2015. Following Louisville’s 75-73 loss to the Cats in Lexington, the former Kentucky coach was being heckled by a fan when video appeared to show him casually flipping the fan the bird. Pitino denied it, telling ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, “No I didn’t flip off the fans. I was in the tunnel. People were yelling ugly crude things I didn’t like. The 1-8 (Pitino’s record vs. Calipari at UK at the time) was fine. But the other comments I didn’t like.” Pitino told O’Neil the gesture was for “We’re No. 1.”

Other moments that received votes:

John Wall gives an emotional speech thanking his mother during his induction ceremony for the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.

UK players messing up Calipari’s hair on the podium after winning the 2012 national championship.

The dedication of the statue of Joe B. Hall outside the new Wildcat Coal Lodge.

The “Brow” phenomenon, inspired by Anthony Davis’ unibrow.

Rupp Arena undergoes significant renovations during the Calipari era to improve the fan experience, most notably the addition of the massive video board and the replacement of bleachers with chair-back seats.

UK’s national championship team visits the White House in 2012.

John Calipari’s introductory press conference in 2009.

Cats fans fill Rupp Arena with a record 22,144 fans for the morning taping of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” the first of the Calipari era.

LeBron James comes to Rupp Arena for a UK game in 2010 and does the “Y.”

UK breaks the Rupp attendance record in its win over Louisville with crowd of 24,479 on Jan. 2, 2010.

Dominique Hawkins commits to Kentucky.

Herald-Leader writer Jerry Tipton telling Cal “It’s Media Day, not Coach Day” when Cal refuses to answer questions about the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption during the team’s 2017-18 Media Day.

Jamal Murray’s arrow celebration after made three-pointers.

The Cats bring out seven players at a 2015 news conference to all announce simultaneously they are leaving for the NBA Draft.

UK playing “Oh, Canada” for Windsor, Ontario, product Mychal Mulder on his Senior Day in 2016-17 .

Rap star Drake is a guest of John Calipari at Big Blue Madness. This came after Cal previously invited Jay Z into the Cats’ locker room.

Charles Barkley interrupts Calipari’s postgame news conference to trade jokes with the UK coach at Auburn in 2018-19.

Kentucky brings Christian Laettner to Rupp Arena for a UK Alumni Charity Game.

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About this series

A vote by the Herald-Leader Sports staff has generated lists of the biggest shots, the top individual performances and the best players of the Calipari era, along with the toughest losses and the biggest disappointments. We also ranked each of Calipari’s 10 teams, re-visited some of his biggest recruiting hits and misses and recalled the most indelible Cal memories of the past decade.

We hope you’ll have as much fun tapping into your Big Blue memories as we did compiling these lists as you read them in the coming days on Kentucky.com and in the Herald-Leader.

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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