Mark Story

Ten Years of Coach Cal: Ranking the lasting memories

Top 10 most indelible Coach Cal memories

These are memorable moments or accomplishments specific to John Calipari that do not include games or championships won.
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These are memorable moments or accomplishments specific to John Calipari that do not include games or championships won.

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 last 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.

As “bully pulpits” go, being head men’s basketball coach at Kentucky is one of the largest in American sports.

Across his 10 years as Top Cat, John Calipari has often made adroit use of the megaphone that comes with his job.

Here are the top 10 lasting, John Calipari-specific off-court memories from the coach’s time at Kentucky.

1. One and done — Whether it was his original plan or not, Calipari and Kentucky are now synonymous with players who stay in college only one season before turning pro. Over his 10 seasons at UK, Calipari has had 25 players turn pro after one year — and that does not count Enes Kanter (who never played for Kentucky) nor Hamidou Diallo (who was at UK for three semesters).

2. The Hall of Fame – On Sept. 10, 2015, Calipari was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In his induction speech, Calipari asked 64 of his former players in attendance to join him on the stage. “The reason I stand here is more about the players I’ve coached,” Calipari said. “I never grabbed a rebound, I never scored a point, I never had an assist.”

3. “The biggest night” in UK basketball history — After Kentucky had five players — John Wall at No. 1; DeMarcus Cousins No. 5; Patrick Patterson No. 14; Eric Bledsoe No. 18; and Daniel Orton No. 29 — selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, Calipari proclaimed it “the biggest night in the history of UK basketball.”

At a school with Kentucky’s rich NCAA championship pedigree, that remark was controversial. UK great Dan Issel said Calipari’s comment had been “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

4. Calipari’s media empire — Calipari’s Twitter account went over 1 million followers by the end of his first season at UK; he currently has in excess of 1.6 million followers. Calipari has his own website, CoachCal.com. The coach was even host of his own podcast during the 2016-17 season, landing A-list guests such as rapper Drake, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Arizona Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald.

5. “Pooping ice cream” — When Calipari has a phrase he likes, he works it. Among phrases Calipari has ingrained into the UK basketball lexicon: “The gold standard;” “Pooping ice cream;” “I like my team;” “This is not communism;” “You people are crazy;” and “This place is not for everyone.”

6. Recruiting kingpin — Kentucky has ranked in the top two in the 24/7 team composite rankings in men’s basketball recruiting every year since Calipari was hired. Six of Calipari’s first seven signing classes were ranked No. 1. UK’s last four recruiting classes have all ranked second.

7. Calipari vs. the Selection Committee — It has become a Selection Sunday tradition that, once the NCAA Tournament pairings have been announced, Calipari appears on TV to suggest the NCAA Selection Committee has deliberately stacked the deck against him.

Calipari seemed especially aggrieved in 2011 (UK seeded fourth in same region as No. 1 overall seed Ohio State); 2014 (UK seeded eighth and slated for second-round contest vs. undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State); and 2016 (UK seeded No. 4, one line below the Texas A&M team the Cats had just beaten in the SEC Tournament finals).

8. The marketer — Sports Illustrated once quoted Calipari as saying “everything in this game is marketing.” Whether it is suggesting the SEC move its conference tournament to the start of the season or that college basketball “own August” with a two week window of scrimmages/practices that are broadcast on TV, Calipari is tireless in the pursuit of promotional opportunities.

9. Calipari “turns up” Big Blue Madness In the Calipari era, the wattage of Kentucky’s preseason basketball pep rally has been amplified. Twice (2014 and 2017), rap star Drake attended in person. For 2016, boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer was on hand to ensure the Rupp Arena crowd was “ready to RUMMBBBLLLLEEEEEE.”

Calipari’s annual state of the program address — “If I have my choice between experience and talent, I’m taking talent every time” — has also become a Madness staple.

10. Calipari’s NBA Draft combine — Before the 2014-15 season, Calipari organized UK’s own “NBA Draft combine” in which representatives from all 30 NBA teams came to Lexington to watch a workout by a loaded Kentucky roster that would go on to win its first 38 games of the year.

“Pro Day” has become an annual UK event. Adding to the promotional value Kentucky reaps, the combine is generally televised over an ESPN-owned platform such as the SEC Network.

Other memories receiving votes: Calipari gets his own ESPN “30-for-30” special; Calipari’s regular linkage to other jobs also leads to regular UK contract enhancements; Calipari’s regular dismissal of the value of the SEC Tournament; Calipari’s charitable giving; Calipari calming Eric Bledsoe after tempers flared during the 2009-10 Louisville game; Rick Pitino appearing on John Calipari’s podcast in 2017; The “It’s Media Day, not Coach’s Day” interaction between the Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton and Calipari at UK’s 2017-18 Media Day; Calipari’s reluctance to play zone defense.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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