Q&A: Calipari ‘hacked off’ at missing 40-0 but focused on what’s next
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Six months ago, John Calipari was shaking Bo Ryan’s hand at the Final Four in Indianapolis, his dream of college basketball’s first 40-0 season having gone up in smoke.
Now it’s a whole new ballgame for Calipari’s University of Kentucky team. Seven of his players from last season — seven! — are gone to the NBA. They’ve been replaced by five more elite freshmen in the most effective NBA developmental program college hoops has ever seen.
With his seventh season in Lexington beginning Friday night, I sat down with Calipari in Kentucky’s practice facility for a wide-ranging interview for FOX Sports 1. We talked about his induction to the Naismith Hall of Fame last summer, about the scandals that ail today’s college game, about the self-doubt that crept in after the only time he was fired, about his burning desire to coach a 40-0 team and, yes, about the end of that Final Four game against Wisconsin.
Love him or hate him, Calipari isn’t afraid to say exactly what he thinks. Even if it’s about wondering whether elite recruits who decide against signing with Kentucky have been smoking crack. (That part’s toward the end.)
FORGRAVE: Last year you guys were two wins away from 40-0 for the first time in history. Then history slipped away. Put me inside your mind that night when you got back to your hotel room in Indianapolis.
CALIPARI: Can I tell you where I am now with it? I’m hacked off. We were historic anyway. It was historic for the individual players to have so many drafted, so many make the league. It was historic to start 38-0, which I don’t think will be done again. But I’m hacked off because we had a chance to go 40-0. The best anybody could do would be tie us. For all time.
You ask me when the game ended, where was I (mentally). My concern was I didn’t want any one player to think he was responsible for that loss. And if anything I wanted it to be something that was on me as the head coach, not my team. If you watch my teams, when we get up four or five with three, four, five minutes to go, we don’t lose those games. Well, we did have that one in the championship game (with Memphis), missed some free throws.
FORGRAVE: We won’t bring up that one.
CALIPARI: Yeah, let’s forget about that one. The reality of it is we’re winning 95 percent of those games. We lost. I didn’t want Andrew (Harrison), Aaron (Harrison), Tyler (Ulis), Devin (Booker) — you think about guys who did not play as well as they could have, I didn’t want any of my guys thinking that way. I wanted them to say, “This hurts. This is painful.”
When I walked in the locker room they were numb, almost like they were in a coma, almost like they couldn’t believe what just happened. And my concern was that more than anything.
As I sit here right now, I am hacked off that we didn’t get there.
FORGRAVE: Do you blame yourself?
CALIPARI: What else could I have done? I do that with individual players: “Could I have coached them a different way? Could I have done more for him as an individual player?”
For myself, I just look back and say, “Could we have done something different?” You have a five-point lead with four minutes to go, you know, what could we have done different?
FORGRAVE: Tied with two minutes left.
CALIPARI: At the end of the day, I don’t really have that rearview mirror. I ripped that out. You’re bringing it up now — I haven’t thought one minute of it all summer. I’m hacked off. I know we could have won. But I’m not thinking of what we could have done.
FORGRAVE: Is there one decision that you regret?
CALIPARI: I don’t remember them. Do you know how fast they come at you? There are so many decisions that happen, and I haven’t relived the game.
FORGRAVE: Do you think 40-0 will ever be done?
CALIPARI: I hope so, by us. I hope so, by a team that I coach. I’ve said it before. Before I retire, I’d like to coach a team that goes 40-0. Because they say, “You can’t do it; it will never be done.” I had a UMass team almost do it. I had a Memphis team almost do it. I had a couple of teams here almost do it. They want to talk about the pressure that comes at you. I’ve gotten better because I’m older now trying to take that off the guys.
The other team thinks they are making history. You’re not playing a team that’s not prepared, not ready. Every team you play plays their best. You got your record hanging there, which inspires them, and if you’re not careful it becomes a weight for you.
FORGRAVE: Would it have improved your team’s mindset if you’d lost one game during the regular season?
Before I retire, I’d like to coach a team that goes 40-0. Because they say, ‘You can’t do it; it will never be done.’
CALIPARI: Now that we’ve lost. But if we’d have gone 40-0, I would go, “Why would we want (to have lost)?” No, we wouldn’t, but since we lost that game, sure. Now I’ll tell you what happened in 2012 when we won the national title. We get in our league tournament and we play Vanderbilt in the championship game. That game we’re up five with six minutes to go, and we end up losing.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist came up to me (after that game) and said, “Start Darius (Miller) in my spot.” He’s 18 years old. This is true servant leadership. I do it, and it kind of gets us (back on track). That move by that young man won us the national title. We lost that game, and it brought our team together.
They said it all year: "They can’t win the national title." "They are starting three freshmen; there is no way they are winning this." But the youngest player on my team made the move that helped us win a national title.
FORGRAVE: People don’t think that anymore. What’s changed? Is it just that (winning with freshmen) has happened so people don’t say that, or have people actually shifted the way they think about college basketball?
CALIPARI: Do you remember the 4-minute mile? There was no way it could ever be done — until someone did it. I will tell you: If we had won 40 last year, in the next five to 10 years, someone else would have won 40. You just think you can because it’s been done.
FORGRAVE: You had been seen as an outsider in the world of college basketball. Now you’re a first-ballot Hall of Famer. You are a member of the most exclusive fraternity in basketball. Was that a personal validation of sorts?
CALIPARI: Let me tell you what it was. It was an unbelievable homecoming. A reception we had at 4 o’clock — 250 people came, nearly 90 of my former players. … I don’t want this to be about me and my family. Because that’s not how this works. Someone had to give you your first job. Someone had to hire you as a head coach. Someone had to give you a chance at a place like Kentucky. You probably got fired along the way, which I did. You have to recover from that, and you can’t do it alone.
It’s kind of like the story if you see a turtle on a post, he didn’t get there by himself. And I’m kind of like the turtle on the post.
FORGRAVE: What’s the message you hope people got from having all these former players standing up with you, dozens upon dozens of them, at your induction ceremony?
CALIPARI: I wanted them to share in this. That’s why I did it. I hope it was a powerful statement for all of us that do this job, that we’re like the turtle on the post, man. What happens for us, we can’t do it, we can’t climb it. We got to have someone pick us up and put us on there.
FORGRAVE: Getting fired from the Nets must have been a humiliating experience. What did you learn about yourself?
CALIPARI: Oh, yeah. You don’t come out from under the covers for a while. Then your second thought is, “Am I ever going to work again? Is anybody going to throw me a life raft?” Larry Brown did. How do I get my mind back to being passionate and fighting and not being afraid? And being a risk-taker and doing all the things that got me here?
I didn’t think I’d ever get a job.
FORGRAVE: Since last year, these are the players that you lost to the NBA: Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins. That’s seven players, 87 percent of your scoring. And yet here you are ranked No. 1 (in the USA Today preseason coaches poll). High expectations, absurd expectations are nothing new to you. But how do you manage them with freshmen who have never played a college game?
CALIPARI: They are finding out we move fast here. The train moves fast. The train moves, and you’re chasing it and can’t ever catch it.
I don’t see it as a burden. It’s a blessing. I think this is my seventh year, we’ve probably been No. 1 five of the years.
You can’t say, “I want you to be one-and-done,” and then try to convince them to stay more years. Because those kids talk: “He says he wants you to leave, but he really doesn’t want you to leave.”
FORGRAVE: How did your first team at Kentucky, when you had a record five players go in the NBA Draft, set the tone for what’s happening now?
CALIPARI: That group of young men put college basketball on its ear and changed everything. Now, it made people angry with me, like I’m ruining college basketball. It’s not my rule! It’s between the NBA and the players association. Please — it’s not my rule. But I am not going to hold young people back. My job as a professor on this campus at the University of Kentucky is to help them get jobs. I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, and my job is help my students get jobs, prepare them and then go out of my way to make the calls and do what I can to help them get started and then be a resource for them later. I am a professor here helping them get jobs, no different than any other professor here.
(One-and-done) is not my rule! It’s between the NBA and the players association. Please — it’s not my rule. But I am not going to hold young people back.
John Wall, when he came in, I said: “You know what? Don’t leave here by yourself. Just play, trust us, quit worrying about stuff. You’re going to have the opportunity to go if you choose to go. You are an NBA player. Just worry about now. We’ll worry about later.” They all five leave, and college basketball changed.
FORGRAVE: If the allegations at Louisville are true, do you believe Rick Pitino should get fired?
CALIPARI: Let me say this: From what I know, it’s not good for anything in college sports, basketball, football, women’s basketball, anything. Because some people as a defense (say), “Well, this happens everywhere.” Stop it. It’s isolated. It’s one thing by this or that group or whatever. It’s not happening everywhere.
That’s an outlier. Something happened on a campus whether it be benefits, academics, whatever, those are outliers. It’s not what’s going on with college athletics.
FORGRAVE: I would imagine that if the allegations at Louisville happened at Kentucky, people immediately would come out of the woodwork asking for your job. What’s the difference?
CALIPARI: When you’re at Kentucky, you accept that’s part of this. Having success means people have to take shots at you. You climb the ladder and your butt shows more, and they are shooting at you. If you can’t accept that, don’t climb the ladder, just don’t climb it. (But) that’s Kentucky. That’s the burden of it, and that’s the blessing of it.
FORGRAVE: It’s almost become an annual tradition, where when an NBA job is open, your name is tossed in the rumor mill even though you keep telling people how happy you are at Kentucky. What would it take for you to leave here?
CALIPARI: At the end of the day (players’) success is my joy. We put the names on the back because they mean something.
The NBA is different.
What can you get great joy from other than winning a championship? Can you make this about players? I tried it in New Jersey — obviously, I got fired — and we had a saying: “Every player, a career year every year.” That’s what I tried to do, and if I look back, guys got better. Guys got paid, guys got better deals. But other than that, can you really get what you get from coaching the college game? The joy?
They are not going to be able to pay me (in the NBA) like here. People say, ‘Well, he’s gonna go because they are going to pay him more.’ No.
They are not going to be able to pay me like here. People say: “Well, he’s gonna go because they are going to pay him more.” No.
I don’t have anything to prove. I mean, what do I have to prove?
If I looked at recruiting as frustrating, if I didn’t like it, would I be good at it? I love it. Here’s what I love. Meeting families, hearing their stories. "Tell me your story.”
Sometimes people are crying. I ask a young player, “What’s your why?” He says his why in front of him, his mother. He says: “That’s my why, that woman right there.” And she bawls. I’m crying.
Now, they all don’t come with me. They know this isn’t for everybody. You got to want to share, you got to want to say: “I want to get better, and taking the most shots or playing the most minutes isn’t going to get me where I’m trying to go. Being the center of attention by myself is not getting me where I’m trying to go."
I look at some kids and I say: “If you don’t come with me, you must be smoking crack.” I mean, what are you thinking? But you know what? They all don’t want to come with me.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.