Commentary

Welcome to Kentucky, Coach Cal

Originally Published: April 1, 2009
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Here's what it looks like when Kentucky introduces a new head basketball coach:

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Mark Zerof/US PresswireJohn Calipari was introduced as Kentucky's head coach Wednesday morning.
About 200 reporters, trustees, friends of the program and other hangers-on murmur in the team's practice gym, then fall into a funereal hush when the new coach enters. Nearly two dozen cameras point at the coach during his news conference, which is carried live across the state.

Immediately afterward, throngs of reporters form packs around the athletic director, the school president, the coach's teenage daughter, two current walk-ons, a former Wildcat who hasn't played basketball since 1992 and anyone else willing to share an opinion. Then, when the new coach leaves the building, he needs security personnel to guide him through the crush of fans wanting autographs and a piece of his time.

Welcome to Kentucky, John Calipari.

Coaching the Wildcats brings an extraordinary amount of attention, responsibility and pressure, which Billy Gillisipie either couldn't or wouldn't handle during his two short years in Lexington. Since Rick Pitino left for the NBA in 1997, Kentucky fans have longed for a coach who could not just hold the job but own it, someone who would win big, play an entertaining style, charm the commonwealth and turn every interview an event.

Calipari has a long way to go to fulfill all those roles. But he had a smashing debut in his first morning as the state's most powerful employee.

At his introductory news conference, the former Memphis coach mixed self-deprecating humor with reverence for the program's history. He name-checked Joe B. Hall, Tubby Smith, Eddie Sutton, Pitino, Kyle Macy, Rex Chapman, Richie Farmer, Adolph Rupp's son, Tayshaun Prince, Nazr Mohammed and the family of the late Bill Keightley. He preached patience while also pledging to "recruit the best of the best" and add to the seven national championship banners hanging on the wall to his right.

"Let's double these," he said.

In other words, he was nearly perfect.

"I think it's the closest thing to Coach Pitino that Kentucky fans have seen since Coach Pitino left," said Farmer, who was a senior on the 1992 "Unforgettables" team and now serves as the state's agriculture commissioner.

"The way he handles himself, the way he interacted with the media and with people, I think that's what a lot of people are looking for. He understands the tradition and what Kentucky basketball means on a national level. Big Blue Nation will be really excited about what's happened here, and I predict that tickets here are going to be at a premium."

Still, Calipari comes with question marks that have little to do with his .761 winning percentage.

If you don't like being in the spotlight and don't like being somewhat of an icon, you'd better not come here and coach. That's what it's about. I think Coach Cal is going to bring us back to the national attention that we deserve.

--Richie Farmer

His first trip to the Final Four, at Massachusetts in 1996, was vacated by the NCAA because of Marcus Camby's dealings with an agent. He has been accused of cutting corners in recruiting and giving troubled players multiple chances, even though he's never been slapped with any major NCAA violations during his career. His reputation -- fairly or unfairly gained -- combined with Kentucky's spotty history of following the rules should raise eyebrows at the very least.

Kentucky president Lee Todd said he had some concerns about Calipari but was reassured during their in-person visit on Sunday. He said he saw the coach's "interest in his players and what he's done as far as graduation rates."

"It's hard to beat a face-to-face meeting," Todd said.

Wildcats athletic director Mitch Barnhart said he worked "very diligently" on his background checks. He said he spoke with officials from the NCAA and Southeastern Conference and found that they had no qualms about Calipari. He also talked to Calipari's former bosses at UMass and Memphis.

Barnhart scoffed at the notion that the merger of Calipari and Kentucky would lead to a win-at-all-costs mentality that would eventually have the NCAA police sniffing around Lexington.

"We're a compliant place," he said. "I've seen the stuff people have said about us and … whatever. We've been compliant and we've been disciplined here, and that won't change. I take offense to people who say that's not our program. I take offense to people who take shots at John for that. He's worked hard at it, and the people I talked to said he works hard at it."

Calipari noted that 19 of the last 22 players who reached their senior year at Memphis graduated. Unsolicited, he brought up the case of former Tigers forward Jeremy Hunt, who was reinstated to the team a year after being kicked off for allegedly beating up a woman and getting into another fight. Calipari said Hunt got his degree and is now playing professionally in Europe.

"We made the right choice," he said. "It wasn't popular, was it?"

Calipari also addressed his relationship with influence peddler William Wesley, or "Worldwide Wes." Wesley is widely credited with helping steer players such as Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and Chris Douglas-Roberts to Memphis, although no one can ever really explain what it is exactly that Wesley does. There's little doubt that Worldwide Wes will soon be Wildcat Wes. But Calipari offered no apologies, saying his recruiting is based on having good relationships with everybody.

"William Wesley knows what he is allowed to do and not allowed to do," Calipari said. "He will never represent the University of Kentucky or me in any kind of recruiting."

Pitino famously referred to Kentucky as the "Roman Empire of college basketball." His successors, Smith and Gillispie, often seemed flummoxed by trying to preside over their vast domain. And Calipari insisted on Wednesday that he was "just a regular guy" and not "a grand pooh-bah" or an "emperor."

John Calipari
Mark Zerof/US PresswireFormer Kentucky player Richie Farmer, right, thinks John Calipari will be a success as coach of the Wildcats.
At the same time, he's not unfamiliar with life in the fishbowl. Calipari was the biggest star other than B.B. King in Memphis. He recalled a time early in his tenure there when a radio station called him after learning he'd been spotted in a Starbucks. He understands that he'll never go out to dinner or the supermarket in Lexington without getting pestered for an autograph or asked about a recruit.

"You know what the other option is?" he said. "You're 1-20 and nobody's asking you for anything.

"So you know that it goes with the job. In Memphis, it was no different. I lived it. This is a hard job, a hard life. But it's a challenge that I'm so excited about taking on."

He's used to second-guessing. Memphis fans questioned everything Calipari did in the 2008 NCAA title game, when his Tigers blew a nine-point lead with 2:12 to play and eventually lost to Kansas in overtime. When he was a younger coach, he said, he couldn't have dealt with the criticism. Now 50, he's become more accepting of it. He said he "can't get on a computer," doesn't listen to talk radio and answers only mail with a return address.

"He has a variety of characteristics that you have to have to be successful at Kentucky," Barnhart said. "He's got the courage. He's not afraid of it. He's passionate. He's got a very good sense of humor."

Calipari cracked several jokes on Wednesday, at one point expressing amazement that Farmer -- against whom he coached in the 1992 NCAA tournament Sweet 16 -- had become a state government official.

"Is that right?" Calipari asked. "A guy who scored baskets could be governor. That's crazy."

No, that's just Kentucky.

As Calipari headed out the Joe Craft Center doors around 11:30 a.m., ready to hop a plane to Memphis for another news conference and then on to meet recruits, he was bombarded by fans. He looked a little stunned as the crowd of about 30 enveloped him, shoving cameras and items to autograph in his face. Calipari signed as many as he could while he kept moving forward to the black Chevy Tahoe that would whisk him to the airport.

Fans shouted, "We love you, Coach!" and "We're glad you're here!" Joey Greene, a 16-year-old from Lexington, beamed after Calipari signed the right shoulder of his Wildcats sweatshirt. A few feet away, a salesman hawked that morning's Lexington Herald-Leader, which screamed "Cal's a Cat" across the front page.

Welcome to Kentucky, coach.

"If you don't like being in the spotlight and don't like being somewhat of an icon, you'd better not come here and coach," Farmer said. "That's what it's about. I think Coach Cal is going to bring us back to the national attention that we deserve."

Brian Bennett covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com.

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