Commentary

All aboard the Calipari bandwagon

Originally Published: October 19, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The rumor mill buzzed.

LeBron definitely was coming. Kanye was going to steal the microphone from John Calipari and make a play on his Video Music Awards speechus interruptus of Taylor Swift.

Justin Timberlake was jetting in.

George Clooney might show up.

Most stunning: No one wrote off the rumors as insane.

Seven months ago, as the Wildcats shamefully limped into the NIT, Ashley Judd was being fitted for a paper bag. Now, the faithful fan would have been relegated to B-list celebrity status, if the rumor mill had proved accurate.

The change in this city and the entire commonwealth is nothing shy of stunning. In a place where there are no shades of gray -- where the sky is either falling or spontaneously sprouting rainbows -- Kentucky fans have crumpled their paper bags in exchange for the rosiest blue-colored glasses money can buy.

From Rosemary Clooney to George Clooney.

Calipari
Mark Zerof/US PresswireJohn Calipari has the public-relations factor Kentucky fans were looking for.

"People were just sad last year,'' longtime radio analyst Tom Leach said. "They wanted their team back.''

I was in Lexington at the end of the 2008-09 regular season, there to see Billy Gillispie star as the dead man walking. Just two years earlier, he had hosted a love-in Big Blue Madness of his own. Now, the Big Blue Nation was just plain mad.

The tension was palpable, the uncertainty choking for the university administration.

People were disappointed, disgusted and, ultimately most damning to Gillispie, disenfranchised. He had done nothing in their eyes to curry favor or patience, remaining aloof and brusque at a program where public relations -- and here, that is just what it says: relating to the public -- is as important as diagramming a winning out-of-bounds play.

Was it that bad? Not really. Gillispie probably was never going to get the PR part of the job. But the man can coach, and perhaps with time and better players, he would have shifted the imbalance in the wins and losses columns, which would have gone a long way toward generating forgiveness of his off-putting personality.

And there are plenty of programs that gladly would have taken a collective, calming and cleansing breath for a coach who a year prior was the conference's coach of the year and in the NCAA tournament.

But Kentucky is not most places.

More importantly, it doesn't want to be.

"In Kentucky, you can't love your grandmother more than basketball,'' said Van Florence, the 30-year president of the Committee of 101, the UK booster organization. "And if you did, your grandmother would tell you you're stupid.

"Having a couple of winning seasons at Texas A&M or El-Paso doesn't equate to nothing to these people. They equate to Carolina and Kansas. They don't give one damn who's in the Big 12 or who you beat in the Big 12. Until you've beaten Louisville and Indiana and UCLA and Kansas, you haven't proven a damned thing. That's what this program is about.''

All that anger, frustration, embarrassment and sadness served as the perfect backdrop for the white-horse ride Calipari has taken into town.

He, too, can coach. While many question his methods and scoff at the "program rooted in integrity'' line in his Friday night speech, there is no arguing his ability to X and O.

More than that, he is a showman, a P.T. Barnum in sneakers.

In Kentucky, you can't love your grandmother more than basketball. And if you did, your grandmother would tell you you're stupid.

-- Van Florence, president of Kentucky booster organization Committee of 101

He has kissed babies and visited the outposts. He and his son pitched a tent among the faithful waiting on madness tickets, and he and his players played corn toss. He's learned the lexicon. His early faux pas of referring to Kentucky as a state has passed, and instead, he now asks people how many of them are Kentucky Colonels at his various appearances.

On Friday night, the introductory video included a montage of images, from black and white to color, from old legends to new, while Calipari's speech invoked beloved late manager Bill Keightley and the great line of coaches -- Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith, noticeably skipping over Eddie Sutton and Rick Pitino.

This is a man who sold his Memphis program as the beggar at the feast, the lil' non-BCS program grazing among the game's royalty. This, despite the fact that as the flagship sport at its university, the basketball program was sixth out of 340 Division I programs with expenses totaling $7.8 million, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

So he can sell Kentucky.

"They wanted somebody coaching the team that they felt like was part of them, that if he met them in Kroger's and said hi, he'd say hi,'' Florence said. "That doesn't mean he loves them and doesn't mean he don't love them, but he said hi.''

It would be easy to throw cold water on all this, to insist it is nothing but a show lacking substance. In fact, Memphis fans, who drank the Cal Kool-Aid for eight years, probably would love to tell Kentucky fans how they feel about the coach now that he has, in their opinion, taken their recruits, staff, Final Four banner and Who Hash.

But phony or real, this is the balm Kentucky fans need right now.

If it ends up scalding their skin later, they'll take the risk.

"You can say what you want to about what's legal with the NCAA and what isn't,'' Florence said. "People here know they took the Final Fours away from him in Memphis and Massachusetts, but they don't care about that here. That's newspaper filler. They care about the fact that he got there.''

And so they poured into Rupp Arena on Friday night, wearing their Cal Y'All T-shirts and blue scarves, blue and white ribbons, blue sparkly blouses and blue flashing earrings.

A man who had to be pushing 60 walked through the turnstiles with his face painted blue and white, and another sat in the stands, his IV cord in one hand, a camera in the other.

They not only had slept in tents to score tickets more golden than Charlie's ducat to Willy Wonka's factory, but they also had ponied up as much as $300 on eBay to purchase tickets with a face value of $0.

[+] EnlargeWall
Icon SMIFreshman John Wall helped raise the excitement level at Rupp Arena on Friday night.

"I don't ever remember it being like this,'' said 74-year-old Tom Wilson, who has served as an usher at Rupp for 21 years and was at his usual perch Friday night for Big Blue Madness. "I usually get here about two hours early, and it's quiet. I got here at 4:45 tonight, and you couldn't get a seat at the food court. People are just so anxious to get this season going.''

So anxious, in fact, that the young among them got up before the sun to make sure they got the best view. Kaitlyn Hayden, Kristin Pritchett, John Crew and Michael McKinley set their alarm clocks for 4:30 a.m. Friday. Packing blankets and sleeping bags to keep warm on the dank and rainy day, they took their place in line outside the arena by 5.

For 13 hours, they played games and took turns buying food and attending classes, all so they could land the coveted first riser in the student section.

Reminded that, in the immortal words of Allen Iverson, "We're talkin' bout practice," they smiled but still insisted it was worth it.

"We're just so excited,'' said Hayden, a sophomore who spent hours on a Web site watching a camera shot of Calipari's office door in Memphis in the days when he was rumored to become but not yet officially named the next Kentucky coach. "We've been waiting for this season to start for six months.''

The wait was equally interminable for the players. Freshman Jon Hood went to class, went to work out, went to shoot and went to dinner with his folks, and when that was all done, the freshman couldn't believe it. It was only 6:30 p.m. He still had an hour to burn.

A native of Madisonville, Ky., Hood knows well what Kentucky basketball means, and as a former recruit, knows well what the madness is about. He attended the previous two.

But when the curtain dropped and he stood on a cherry picker in front of a crazed Rupp Arena, he was flabbergasted.

"I'm afraid of heights, so you get up on that thing and you're nervous, but then you see all these people cheering and you just lose it,'' Hood said. "And then you realize they're cheering for me, and they're so loud. Then I got down with my team and they were louder. It was incredible. I wish I could describe it, but you can't.''

Keyed up from the excitement, Hood went back to his room, where his adrenaline pumped for more than three hours and sleep eluded him for the better part of the night.

Teammate Patrick Patterson went back to his room and found a Facebook page about ready to collapse.

"True story -- I had 300 messages on Facebook and I think 1,000 new friend requests,'' the junior said. "I accept everybody, but I'm already at my limit.''

Now the big question: What happens now that the season is here?

When the lights faded and Friday gave way to dawn Saturday, the Wildcats got down to the real business of practice. There is, as most everyone knows, a foolish amount of talent on the roster. But there also are six newcomers and a new offense and a new coaching staff and a better conference and nonleague games against Miami, North Carolina, Connecticut and, of course, Louisville.

"We're pretty much worn out,'' Patterson said. "It's just waking up in the morning, practicing, going back to coach Cal's to eat, napping, waking up and practicing again. But it's worth it. I'm on a mission. We all are.''

Indeed, the spectrum is burning orange, with fans anticipating Calipari's white steed taking them on a deep and profitable ride through March. Although the coach has tried in the past week to downplay expectations, that train is too far down the track to reel in.

"They're all in,'' Leach said. "The bandwagon couldn't get any fuller.''

Well, actually, there's always room for one more.

So if you're not busy, Mr. Clooney …

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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