Mark Story

Losing changed UK's mind

John Calipari waited for the phone call. And waited. And waited.

Two years ago, after Tubby Smith bolted for the Great White North, Calipari figured he was a logical candidate to become the new head man at Kentucky.

"I called my wife (Ellen) every day for six days. 'Did they call? Did they call?' " Calipari said of UK. "Then I kind of figured out; they're not calling."

Two years and one ill-fated Kentucky coaching hire later, the call that ultimately made Coach Cal into the Cats' coach finally arrived.

John Calipari's initial foray as head men's basketball coach of the Kentucky Wildcats played to boffo reviews Wednesday.

In a morning news conference from the plush Joe Craft Center carried live on ESPN and TV stations around Kentucky, the now ex-Memphis coach was charming, funny, even poignant.

When he opened his remarks, Calipari noted that he had officially agreed to take the UK job on March 31 — the one-year anniversary of the death of Bill Keightley.

At the mention by the new coach of the beloved Mr. Wildcat, you could almost feel eyes misting from Paducah to Pikeville.

This guy is good.

So why was the man greeted as UK's basketball savior in 2009 a coaching-search outcast when Lee Todd and Mitch Barnhart went looking in 2007?

Todd, the UK president, said Wednesday he didn't know why.

"I don't know everyone that Mitch talked to," Todd said of UK's 2007 search. "I don't remember much talk about" Calipari.

Barnhart, the Kentucky athletics director, said he entered the 2007 search with a plan and a pecking order set in his mind.

He gave Billy Donovan first crack at the job, which meant waiting until Joakim Noah and Co. finished their successful defense of the NCAA title.

Once Billy D. said no, "I talked to another coach," Barnhart said, in what I think was a reference to Rick Barnes of Texas.

"Then I got to the third name on my list," Barnhart said. "And it was Billy (Gillispie)."

Why wasn't Calipari in that top three in 2007?

"There was no real reason. It was sort of like when a coach goes out recruiting and you have a list of prospects, one, two, three, four, five, six," Barnhart said. "I entered that search with a firm plan in mind. And stuck to it."

OK.

Since they won't say it, I will.

I think the reason Todd and Barnhart didn't call Calipari in 2007 was that they were scared by the coach's reputation for working in the college basketball gray areas.

The reason they did call him in 2009 was that Kentucky's athletics honchos were feeling a whiff of desperation to get UK basketball back to winning at a " Kentucky level."

At the University of Kentucky, when you are coming off four straight double-digit-loss seasons; when you've just played in the NIT; and when you've been forced to acknowledge you've completely bungled the prior coaching search after two years by firing the coach; well, then an athletics director's hold on his job can start feeling a little shaky.

At Kentucky, it could even be that a university president's hold on his job could start feeling a little less than secure.

You really need a hire of the magnitude that changes the conversation.

Under those circumstances, the positives of a charismatic coach who can energize a fan base, recruit and flat-out coach begin to come rather starkly into focus.

Meanwhile, all those gray areas — Worldwide Wes; players on the police blotter; Massachusetts and its vacated Final Four trip — become a lot easier to look past.

So, two years after Calipari expected the call from Kentucky, Todd and Barnhart finally got Memphis on the line.

Now, they have their reputations staked on Coach Cal.

"I'm totally comfortable with John," Barnhart said after Wednesday's news conference. "Just getting to know him, he's not the person that you often see portrayed. I told him, I know what that feels like."

Five years from now, if the Calipari legacy at UK is about basketball — not the gray areas — we'll know that Kentucky's tardy call was a good call.

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