Commentary

Cal continues to win over fans, recruits

Seven weeks and zero games later, new coach has UK fans talking/Twittering title

Originally Published: May 20, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The message from The Savior came -- naturally, in these multimedia times -- via Twitter.

At 1:22 on Tuesday afternoon, UKCoachCalipari Tweeted, "This is unbelievable. Tomorrow we will !#$@+&%# that %&$* %&:; has $@~'%# to *2$( at %&%#&%$). Can u believe this!"

John Calipari
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCalipari will debut at UK with what most regard as one of the top recruiting classes of the decade.

And his 61,292 loyal followers, considering the message with the same fervor with which religious fanatics might contemplate the Virgin Mary in the syrup on their waffles, dashed to their hieroglyphic-to-English dictionaries and wrenched decoder pens out of their toddlers' chubby palms.

The final answer to the John Wall riddle lay in the ampersands.

Ninety minutes later, after Twitter -- a company that counts everyone from Martha Stewart to Michael Phelps among its users -- was inundated by requests to unmask Calipari's hidden message, the Kentucky coach had to issue an explanation.

"I WAS HAVING FUN!" he Tweeted at 2:36 p.m.

If you want to know why Kentucky paid Calipari more than the operating budget of the city of Detroit, why athletic director Mitch Barnhart stuck his neck out with a hire he knew would raise some eyebrows, why Billy Gillispie was run out of town before unpacking his furniture, consider Tuesday.

Wall's decision to come to Lexington put the cherry on top of Calipari's top-rated recruiting class and continued Kentucky's month-long run as the talk of college basketball.

That's exactly the one-two punch Cat brass was looking for when it turned over its program to Calipari.

Kentucky wants two things: to win big and to matter most.

Before April 1, it was failing miserably at both.

The Wildcats were mired in something far worse than mediocrity. They were stuck in the limbo of irrelevancy. In the past six seasons, Kentucky has made only one trip to the NCAA tournament's second weekend. Since winning the national title in 1998, UK hasn't even returned to the Final Four.

Upstart football schools in Gainesville -- and worse, Cardinal red neighbors in Louisville -- had seeped into the school's fertile recruiting grounds and skulked off with better talent.

Extreme Makeover

The new and improved Kentucky Wildcats, with blue-chippers John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins on board, have secured the top spot in Scouts Inc.'s final 2009 class rankings. UK isn't the only power program making noise on the trail. Top 25

•  The ESPNU 100 | Recruiting index

On March 15, otherwise known as Black Sunday in most of the state, Kentucky received its NIT bid and Louisville its overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Three weeks later, Calipari rode the white steed of four consecutive seasons with 33-plus wins into town.

In a way, he is the school's Nathan Jessup. He is on the wall because Kentucky, after two miserable seasons, needs him on that wall.

And needed him to get John Wall.

Whatever machinations and orchestrations are rumored to be associated with him (Worldwide Wes as puppeteer?) are well worth the salvation of the program.

Make no mistake, the man already is earning his seven-figure salary. He has pied-pipered recruits across the border from Memphis and taken a kid right out of the usually suction-cup hold of Tobacco Road.

They are not in Lexington because of the history and the tradition at Kentucky. To an 18-year-old, 2007 is history; 1998 is a textbook chapter.

And the next kid who signs with a school for its campus layout, academic selection or cushy dorms will be the first.

Kids are sold on coaches, and there is no pitchman like Calipari. DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson followed his trail straight out of Memphis, a city and school to which they already had pledged their undying love and commitment. Eric Bledsoe trimmed his list to the Tigers and the Cats, opting ultimately for Kentucky and Calipari.

Wall's advisors reportedly wanted him at Duke or Miami. Yet he's a Wildcat, too.

(The biggest problems Kentucky might have next season are trying to figure out how to divvy up one basketball and reaching the NCAA scholarship allotment. With Patrick Patterson already returning and Jodie Meeks perhaps coming back as well, Calipari will have to deftly maneuver egos and playing time so as not to turn this great recruiting class into Seton Hall circa 2001. He'll also need to hand out some pink slips. Meeks would give the Cats 17 scholarship players; that's four too many).

But Calipari's recruiting windfall is doing more than just bolstering a Final Four-caliber roster.

It's restoring a bruised psyche.

In what could be viewed as an "Ode on an Italian Coach," one message-board writer summed up his feelings on CatsPause.com after Wall's commitment:

"Gone are the days when we only make SportsCenter if we lose to a bottom feeder like Gardner-Webb.

[+] EnlargeBilly Gillispie
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaKentucky fans never seemed to connect with Billy Gillispie. Home losses to Gardner-Webb and VMI and the end of an NCAA-tourney streak didn't help.

Gone are the days when we dribble the ball for 30 seconds and then launch a 3 before the shot clock expires.

Gone are the days of wondering who our coach would be a jerk to next.

Gone are the days of promising to 'run more' every preseason.

Gone are the days of sweating out Selection Sunday.

Gone are the days of the annual spring scramble where we desperately try to convince leftover recruits to come to UK so we can fill out our roster.

Gone are the days of locking kids in bathroom stalls because we can't stand to look at their faces.

Gone are the days of losing out to prep schools.

Soon to be gone are the days of trying to explain why Final Fours aren't really important.

Perhaps best of all, gone are the days of 'parity,' where it was claimed it was no longer possible to dominate a conference or to avoid losing to programs like Florida or Vandy.

The Cats are B-A-C-K!

We can compete with ANYONE in the country and will be loads of fun to watch again. Recruits are banging down our door, and our coach is just as passionate as we are and is promoting our program like never before.

I must have died and gone to heaven."

Kentucky is Kentucky because of its fan base. Capturing their hearts and loyalty is vital to a coach's success. Rick Pitino mastered it. Tubby Smith only partially did.

Gillispie's gravest miscalculation was that he failed to recognize how much all the non-basketball stuff mattered.

I was in Lexington at Gillispie's nadir. It wasn't pretty. Fans were angry and embarrassed at the losing but furious that he failed to embrace their passion. Gillispie was viewed as standoffish and indifferent.

He "didn't get it," I was told more than once. He was in hot water more for that, Barnhart told me, than for his win-loss record.

Calipari doesn't just get it.

He Tweets it.

"Wraps, calamari (which I've been called) and sea bass," he Tweeted at the end of Tuesday. "YES IT'S BEEN A GOOD DAY."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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