Calipari making Kentucky’s investment pay off

When Kentucky officials met with coach John Calipari two years

ago to talk about the program’s vacant head coaching position, they

came armed with a sales pitch.

Turns out, they didn’t need one.

Instead, it was Calipari who ended up doing the selling. When

university President Lee Todd and athletic director Mitch Barnhart

outlined their vision for returning the Wildcats to glory, Calipari

cut them short and assured them he was the man for the job.

”He said, ‘This is it: Notre Dame football and Kentucky

basketball, and I want to be a part of Kentucky,”’ Todd said. ”I

knew then we had the right man.”

Standing in a giddy postgame locker room on Sunday night after

Calipari led the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 1998,

Todd believes now more than ever the school made the right


”The more I see him on a daily basis, and (the way) he coaches

and teaches players, the more proud I am of the decision we made,”

Todd said.

Even if it came at a steep cost – eight years and $31.65 million

– and a bit of a gamble. Calipari’s resume is brilliant but also

pockmarked with a couple of NCAA splotches that are hard to


Kentucky plays Connecticut Saturday in Houston. In Calipari’s

previous visits to the Final Four, with Massachusetts in 1996 and

Memphis in 2008, were later vacated by the NCAA for rule

violations. Though Calipari was not found at fault in either

instance, the stigma is something he bristles at.

And it’s something that follows him wherever he goes.

Even as Calipari celebrated with his players on the floor of the

Prudential Center on Sunday evening after joining Rick Pitino as

the only men’s coach in NCAA history to lead three schools to the

Final Four, a fan stood 20 feet from the floor and taunted

Calipari, repeatedly shouting ”it will just be vacated.”

The next week will give Calipari the stage he’s coveted for much

of his career. He’s spent most of his 25-plus seasons in coaching

as an outsider who thrived finding success in unlikely places. Now

he’s winning at a place where it’s demanded by one of the most

passionate fan bases in the country.

Calipari remains adamant that he’s done nothing wrong, but knows

there is a faction that remains unsatisfied with his answers.

”We will all be judged 50 years from now,” Calipari said.

”The good news is, there will be no emotion to it where someone

wants to be nasty and mean; it won’t be here. It will be here’s the

facts, here’s what he’s done.”

All Calipari has done at Kentucky is win and found a way to

prosper in a seat that wore down Tubby Smith and chewed up Billy

Gillispie in two short years.

Though he said during his introductory press conference two

years ago he didn’t want to be an emperor, he’s reveled in the

spotlight coaching at Kentucky provides.

He’s made Kentucky basketball fun again. Superfan Ashley Judd

has returned to Rupp Arena. LeBron James has stopped by for a

visit. And Jay-Z strolled into the locker room after the Wildcats

secured their 14th Final Four appearance to congratulate the

somewhat awestruck players.

Where Smith grew reticent and Gillispie outright rebelled

against the role of ambassador that comes with the job, the

52-year-old Calipari has embraced it with a fervor of someone half

his age.

His infectious energy – and his ability to lure the top high

school players to Lexington – has returned the Wildcats to a perch

the program has long considered its birthright.

And he’s done it with a team that was supposed to be a bridge

between last year’s ”once in a lifetime” group that featured five

first-round NBA draft picks and next year’s incoming class that

could be nearly as deep.

Even as Kentucky struggled through a bumpy regular season,

failing to deliver in close games on the road, he remained

steadfast in his belief that the Wildcats would mature.

When the NCAA ruled freshman center Enes Kanter permanently

ineligible for accepting more than the minimum benefits while

playing for a Turkish club team two years ago, Calipari made Kanter

a student assistant coach and decided to tighten his rotation and

rely almost exclusively on six players, three of them freshmen.

He repeated ”I like my team” so often it was as if he was

trying to convince the Wildcats it was true even as he maniacally

prowled the sidelines trying to find the right answers.

Kentucky has found them in March and heads into Saturday’s

matchup with Connecticut – which as NCAA problems of its – on a

10-game winning streak.

There will be plenty of chatter about Calipari’s path between

now and the tip-off of the most important game at Kentucky in more

than a decade. He’s ready for it.

”I would tell you I hope people look and say, ‘boy he does a

good job with his kids and they get better and they play and they

go on to good careers, whether it is basketball or business or

education,”’ Calipari said. ”And if I am lucky enough to do more

on the basketball court, fine. If I don’t win another game on the

basketball court, that would be fine too.”

Maybe for Calipari, but not the university that dug deep in its

pockets to lure him away from Memphis.

Barnhart, who opted not to pursue Calipari when Smith left in

2007 and hired Gillispie instead, knew he couldn’t get the next

hire wrong.

While aware of the potential criticism Calipari’s hire would

bring, particularly at a school rocked by scandal in the 1980s,

Barnhart vowed the university had no reason to doubt Calipari’s


Or his ability to deliver.

Two years after the Wildcats made him the highest paid coach in

the country, the investment seems worth it.

”You play at Kentucky to raise banners, and I’m happy we did

this, I’m happy for these guys, because no one gave them a

chance,” Barnhart said. ”John has done a tremendous job of

developing players, and you can see that.”


AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Newark, N.J., contributed to

this report.