Commentary

Calipari thrills Wildcats faithful

Updated: October 18, 2009, 3:59 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- John Calipari won the election Friday night, winning the crowd and the popular vote with a speech that knocked the competition out of the water.

The man who has spent the past six months stumping from Paducah to Pikeville brought his campaign to an end Friday night, greeting his rabid faithful with a rousing, dais-pounding speech that was a cross between a political convention and a religious revival.

There were pyrotechnics and dramatic entrances; a country star serving as an assistant coach; a rapper hanging in the layup line; and Tayshaun Prince. But mostly there was Calipari, the healer of the afflicted in the commonwealth, come to ease the pain of the Kentucky faithful who suffered in the purgatories of mediocrity the past two seasons.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/Ed Reinke John Calipari and Kentucky opened basketball season with flair Friday night.

This was more than Big Blue Madness. This was Big Blue Salvation.

In a speech in which he invoked Richie Farmer, the Unforgettables, grandmothers sharing cocoa with their grandkids while camping for tickets and Big Blue fans "fighting for our country overseas," Calipari laid it on thick and laid it on loud. For a fan base that felt disenfranchised by the previous regime, it was nothing shy of a come-to-Jesus meeting.

"This team is not about the 13 guys sitting behind me," Calipari said. "It's about the eRupption zone and the band and the dance team and the national champion cheerleaders and Ashley Judd and, most of all, it's about you, the fans."

(The fans, including grown-ups who slept in tents and students who lined up in the wee hours of Friday morning to score primo general admission seating, were so frenzied and excited they might have forced the school to report a possible NCAA violation. At varying times, a collection of folks in the arena chanted the names of three recruits on hand, this despite letters and warnings from the compliance office that doing so could be construed as a secondary violation).

Calipari laid out his vision -- it did not include a health care reform package -- for his Wildcats, a plan for the program to become "the gold standard not just in basketball but in all of college athletics," to fevered applause.

After all, that is exactly how Kentucky envisions its basketball program, results of recent years be damned.

But Calipari pointed out that his term, er, coaching tenure, would include challenges. With a new staff and new system and new players, his team was starting near the bottom of the mountain, a clear attempt to calm the crazed who have been arguing the possibility of an undefeated UK season.

No doubt that part fell on deaf ears.

"This is the first time we felt this way about our team in a long time," said John Haynes, a 20-year-old who doesn't even attend UK but waited hours to score a ticket to his first Madness. "We're just so excited. This team has so much talent; they're going to play the way we like our teams to play."

After a good 10 minutes, Calipari finished his speech with what might be construed as a thinly veiled zinger at former coach Billy Gillispie, whose career here ended amid rumors of unhappy players giving up in a disastrous stretch that led the Wildcats into the NIT.

"If our players are having fun, if they're having the time of their lives," Calipari said, "don't you think they'd try to extend our season?"

This technically being a basketball practice, there were basketball players and basketball.

With students filling the crevices of an H-shaped stage at the end of Rupp Arena, the band lined up at midcourt, strobe lights shining and fireworks shooting, a countdown clock on the big screens ticked down to the first minute of the Calipari era (or was it the final minute of the Gillispie era?).

Like saviors dropped from heaven -- and let's face it, that's what they are here -- the players, including the ballyhooed freshman class, were introduced on curtain-covered lifts suspended a good 25 feet above the stage. Eric Bledsoe came first, earning a decent ovation; John Wall garnered a crazed reaction; and Patrick Patterson was last, greeted with riotous excitement.

The layup line turned into a dunk contest, with Wall igniting the crowd with some monster throwdowns, and eventually the Wildcats put on a fairly lackluster 20-minute scrimmage of badly jacked shots and occasional dunks.

"Folks, folks, I hope you're enjoying this," Calipari said toward the end of the uninspired hodgepodge scrimmage. "But you can see how far we have to go. I hope everybody understands it."

The night ended as it always does at Kentucky, with the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" fading into the rafters.

But the song that can sound so much like a mournful dirge took on a heartier tone this time.

The campaign is officially over.

The new era has begun.

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

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