Charismatic Calipari winning over Bluegrass
When John Calipari was introduced as Kentucky's coach on April 1, he cautioned that he wasn't ``The Grand Poobah.''
Nine months later he has conquered the Bluegrass, leading the unbeaten Wildcats back to their customary perch among college basketball's elite with 17 consecutive wins, the No. 2 ranking in the country and a legitimate chance to reach their first Final Four in 12 years.
Calipari has done his best to downplay his team's meteoric rise. In his eyes, the Wildcats are 10-7 at best.
``I'm pleased, but we have a long way to go,'' he said.
Maybe, but Kentucky's best start since Adolph Rupp was on the sidelines 44 years ago has caught the nation's attention.
``They're absolutely exceeding expectations, any reasonable expectations anyway,'' said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. ``I think John's been the Coach of the Year to this point. For him to have taken a program and to have infused so much talent and to get the talent playing so well together ... is remarkable.''
And if that isn't enough to justify being the highest-paid college basketball coach in the country at about $4 million per year, Calipari's influence off the court has been just as pronounced.
He spent his first six months on the job promoting the program from one end of the state to another with a politician's savvy and a carnival barker's sense of showmanship. He asked for patience but did it with a smile, knowing his pleas would go unheeded. It tends to happen when you assemble the top-rated recruiting class in the country led by star guard John Wall.
So far, the precocious Wildcats have lived up to the hype, providing the state with a welcome dose of good news.
``The one thing people have always enjoyed emotionally is Kentucky basketball,'' said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. ``Cal has brought that (joy) back and given people some pride in their program again. He's given them energy and fun and I don't know how you put a price-tag on that.''
That would be $31.65 million for eight years.
Barnhart knew Calipari's eye-popping deal - the highest in college basketball - would raise some eyebrows, particularly in a state whose economy is slumping. He was almost defensive the day Calipari was hired, arguing it would be money well spent if Calipari could restore the program's faded luster.
Nobody asks Barnhart about Calipari's salary anymore.
If anything, said Kentucky alum and booster Jim Host, Calipari may be underpaid for how he's delivered the program out of the depths of Billy Gillispie's tumultuous two-year tenure.
``I thought Gillispie was a disaster,'' Host said. ``Cal's done the best job of being an ambassador for the university of anybody I've ever seen. He's excited the base of that program like nobody I've seen since (former coach) Rick (Pitino).''
Calipari has energized the program's corporate partners too, a segment that is growing seemingly by the day.
IMG College pays Kentucky around $8 million a year for the school's local multimedia rights package. The athletic association's take goes up if advertising sales exceed a certain threshold.
That didn't happen under Tubby Smith and Gillispie. Calipari's success has helped open the flood gates.
``It has gotten a whole lot easier to sell it with Calipari here,'' said IMG College managing director Tom Stultz. ``The sponsors seem very, very happy with him and his attitude toward them. He's a guy that gets it and totally understands the value of doing what he can.''
Namely winning and looking good doing it - in that order.
The school has been stalking the 2,000-win barrier for several years, something that had become a bit of a joyless pursuit under Gillispie. Instead of limping to the line, however, the Wildcats sprinted across, becoming the first school to reach the milestone with a win over Drexel in December.
The postgame celebration featured confetti and commemorative ``UK2K shirts'' modeled by the players. The school's athletics Web site set a sales record the next day, a boost deputy director of athletics Rob Mullens likened to a Final Four or conference championship appearance.
``He brings a different profile to the table,'' Mullens said. ``He's put us back in the national conversation on a daily basis.''
Though Calipari is saying all the politically correct things about the early success, his mentor Larry Brown isn't fooled. Brown is only too aware of how consumed his former assistant is with getting Kentucky back to prominence.
``I could be in the middle of an eight-game losing streak and he won't ever ask me how we're doing,'' said Brown, who coaches the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. ``It's all about (him). I always have to remind John, 'You know, John, we just lost our eighth straight.' He's always so wrapped up.''
Well, he does have a rapt audience.
Thousands of fans stick around after home games to listen to his postgame radio chats. He has over 1 million followers on Twitter, a cutting edge Web site and his latest motivational book was a best-seller.
Calipari has made Kentucky basketball cool again.
Superfan Ashley Judd - a fixture in the stands during Pitino's glory years - has returned to Rupp Arena. Games are drawing such huge crowds the actress had trouble finding a parking space before last week's win over Georgia.
``It's like a big cloud has been lifted off the state and people have their swagger back,'' Stultz said.
The school has already broken its single-game attendance record three times this season. The starting price for upper level seats to next month's showdown with Tennessee are already $150 a piece on Stubhub.
At least those seats are available, that can't be said for ones courtside. Attorney Darryl Isaacs, an alum and high profile booster, is one fan who isn't giving his up. He's even started traveling with the team again, something he did only once during Gillispie's tenure.
During a trip to Florida on Tuesday to watch an 89-77 win over the Gators, Isaacs and several boosters took a look around Florida's football facilities. They saw the list of $1 million donors to Florida athletics. Isaacs guessed it's a number Kentucky can easily match with Calipari at the helm.
``I do think you've got some big donors, when they see a guy of his caliber and magnitude, they don't mind stepping up,'' he said.
Calipari understands Kentucky basketball extends beyond the court. He called boosters on Christmas Day to wish them Happy Holidays and has reached out to some of the program's luminaries like former coach Joe B. Hall ensure they feel included.
``It's not something a normal coach would do,'' said booster Davis Marksbury.
It's a renaissance Marksbury hoped would start three years ago. Calipari was his first choice to replace Tubby Smith in 2007. The coach has proven to be worth the wait.
``He gets people to buy in, whether it's the donors, the players, whoever,'' Marksbury said. ``I like to say that if we could take the UK basketball team public and make it a public entity, he'd be a great CEO.''
For now, being ``The Grand Poobah'' seems to be good enough.
AP Sports Writer Mike Cranston in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.