There was a time, early on, when it seemed easy to peg John Calipari. Back in the late '80s he was just another pretty face, one more Pat Riley clone with the slick hair and dazzling patter, the just-so suits and shoes. Talent flocked to him, but he radiated a knockoff's flimsiness: too much talk and an ambition about as subtle as sharkskin. Opposing recruiters wanted to beat him bloody. Opposing coaches tried to sabotage his hiring. Omens? His first game as a head coach, the scoreboard caught fire. You just didn't figure Calipari for the long haul.
These days, of course, he is basketball's great survivor, the ever-moving (Gas up the private jet!), ever-hustling (four McDonald's All-Americans for 2011!), ever-tweeting (1.1 million followers!) head coach of the University of Kentucky. And while his eight-year, $31.7 million contract—the richest in the college game—is the most obvious measure of his success, it's hardly the most telling. Like the sharpest scavenger after a storm, Calipari has prospered more than any other coach in college basketball's broken system, gathering up top recruits, winning 30 games a season and then happily waving his one-and-done players goodbye. Last spring an unprecedented five Wildcats, four of them freshmen, went in the first round of the NBA draft. And if this season has been a relative struggle, most of Kentucky's rivals would gladly take a morning after that includes a 22--8 record, a No. 15 ranking, a 34-game home winning streak and more than enough talent to play deep into March.
"Regardless of what John tells you, he's got this team right," LSU coach Trent Johnson said after the Wildcats gave the Tigers what he called "a good old-fashioned ass-whipping" at Rupp Arena on Jan. 15. "They're a handful."
Coach Cal may get his teams "right" season after season, but the biggest win of his 22-year career surely came during three hours in a Chicago hotel suite in March 2009, when he persuaded Kentucky's president, Lee T. Todd Jr., to hire him even as the NCAA was investigating alleged violations by Calipari's program at Memphis. And despite a news drip about possible violations in Lexington since then (a fruitless NCAA probe into former guard Eric Bledsoe's high school transcript; a Chicago Sun-Times report last August that the father of recruit Anthony Davis got $200,000 for his son to commit to the Wildcats, an allegation that both dad and school deny), the coach's stature within the administration has only grown. To have Todd—who was so alarmed by what he calls the "smoke" surrounding Calipari that he wouldn't consider him when the job first opened in 2007—say in February that the only coach to preside over two Final Four runs vacated by the NCAA (at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008) now gives him "a good, wholesome feeling," well, that too can be considered a kick-ass performance.
"I could be at risk of saying he did a job on me [in Chicago], but it's proved to be a real job, a long-lasting job," Todd says. "I've seen the proof. I've seen him operate."
Calipari's detractors delight in noting that he has always left town one step ahead of the sheriff, even if he was cleared by the NCAA of any personal culpability in the UMass and Memphis messes. And what do the message-board cynics make of his $1 million donation last June to Streets Ministries of Memphis, or his washing of poor kids' feet in Port-au-Prince and Detroit last year, or his organizing a January 2010 telethon that raised $1.3 million for Haiti's earthquake victims? They cite ESPN analyst Bob Knight, who in December 2009 called Calipari the embodiment of the sport's ills. "Integrity is really lacking [in college basketball]," Knight said in a speech in Indianapolis. "We've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation, and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that."
Never mind that the General, no pillar of rectitude himself, had his facts wrong: Only Memphis went on probation. Knight is the bulldog eyeing the cat as it lands, again, on its feet, and he's not the only one perplexed. Calipari once declared that rather than competition or education, "everything in this game is marketing," and it's a constant struggle for rivals and the hoops commentariat to decide where his sell begins and ends. "John's out there," says Larry Brown, one of his coaching mentors. "The way he dresses, the way he talks nonstop. A lot of people look at that shtick and say, That guy is not real."
Calipari's spin is so notorious—and the smoke swirling around him so thick—that few noticed a recent gesture of sportsmanship that would have burnished any other coach's reputation. On Feb. 8, during a pulverizing win over Tennessee at Rupp Arena, Wildcats fans chanted, Bruce You Cheat-ed! at Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl, who was back after an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA investigators about recruiting violations. Calipari and Pearl despise each other, but Calipari whirled on the students, glared and shook his head. "Stop!" he said, waving his arms. "There's no place for that here." The chant died, yet no laudatory ink flowed Calipari's way.
Could it be that the slickness that has lifted him to the top of his profession also allows nothing good to stick? "We just roll out the balls here," Calipari will say, but it's not humility. It's hurt. His rep as a recruiter and all the hand-wringing about one-and-dones have made it easy to ignore the fact that year in and year out, he gets players—especially those with one eye fixed on the mock-draft boards—to sacrifice their individual games for the team. And with six former assistants now Division I head coaches, Calipari's coaching tree is second only to that of Arizona State's Herb Sendek.
"People try to figure out, Why's he do something? There's an ulterior motive," Calipari says. "They're obsessed. And if you're obsessed, you lose. The great news is, I'm not obsessed with them."
Calipari slumps at the counter by the window, his thousand-yard stare boring through the plate glass of a Lexington doughnut shop. In a day he will be 52 years old. Shivering passersby glance at him, some recognizing the king of the commonwealth, the caretaker of, as they bellow before every tip-off at Rupp, "the greatest tradition in college basketball!" Calipari waves.
It's the mid-morning lull, and the shop is dead: a rare quiet moment for one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. sports, an unsettling reminder of all that's questionable about college athletics. At the very least, the two programs Calipari resurrected were too easily infected by the plagues of circling agents and academic fraud. Yet Calipari has always won, so he has only kept rising, and now he sits atop one of the nation's premier programs. You can watch many college teams these days and pretend the game is pure. Not Kentucky. Not with Coach Cal.
Still, it's not just his past that makes Calipari so troubling. It's that while other coaches want to preserve some semblance of the game's traditional values, Calipari has always embraced the now—whether it be the Proposition 48 players he welcomed to UMass or the freshman exodus he celebrated last year as "the biggest day" in Kentucky hoops history. In 2002, Calipari famously tore up Dajuan Wagner's Memphis scholarship after his freshman year because he believed Wagner shouldn't pass up the NBA riches he would earn as a projected first-round draft pick. Ever since, any kid dreaming of a sneaker contract has thought, Now there's a coach who gets it.
"Whatever rules you play by, that man is going to be successful," says William (Worldwide Wes) Wesley, the renowned hoops fixer and Creative Artists Agency consultant on coaches. "You raise the basket to 12 feet? He's going to figure it out."
You could all but hear the harrumphing when, in January, retired Arizona coach Lute Olson called Calipari "very unprofessional" for luring Memphis's prime recruits to Kentucky. By traditional standards, that was unseemly, but the move didn't bother 33-year-old Josh Pastner, the former assistant to Calipari—and Olson—who succeeded Calipari as the Tigers' coach. "The right and principled thing to do," Pastner says, "was for those young men to follow Coach Calipari."
Pastner knows what Olson doesn't: Pastner recruited those players to Memphis by preaching the virtues of Calipari more than the virtues of the school. The dirty little truth is that the program, the academic institution, the tradition—even if it's, yes, Kentucky's—is second to the coach. "You have kids who were going to Memphis only because of me," Calipari says. "That's how it is."
If that's jarring, it shouldn't be. Critics carp that Calipari has spent a career proving that college ball isn't always what it seems. They hardly ever mention that the same can be said of the man.
The first time he saw two coaches try to destroy each other, Calipari laughed. It was 1980, late in his sophomore year, and he had just transferred to Division II Clarion (Pa.) State after washing out as a D-I guard at UNC-Wilmington. Now here he was at the raucous, packed Pennsylvania State Athletic Championship game, Clarion hosting Cheyney State. Unable to suit up until the following season, Calipari had kept busy sweeping the gym floor and reading books like The Power of Positive Thinking. He was sitting behind the Clarion bench when Cheyney State coach John Chaney, riding the officials hard just before halftime, flung his sport coat to the floor. Clarion coach Joe DeGregorio put his arms around a ref's shoulders, rasping, "Don't worry about him."
Chaney bulled forward. "What are you doing?" he screamed. "I'm half of this damn game!"
"Hey, John," DeGregorio said.
Chaney lunged, spittle flying. DeGregorio planted his feet. "Two football players jumped out of the stands and knocked John to the floor," DeGregorio says. "They kept us in the locker room [for halftime] an extra five minutes. I came out and shook his hand and got a standing ovation. They beat us by seven."
Calipari loved it. "I thought they were both crazy," he says. The scene also gave him a taste of the spicy career to come. Coaching feuds aren't unusual, but it's rare for one man to become ensnarled in so many that are so vicious. From Knight to Louisville's Rick Pitino (a supposed onetime friend of Calipari's who once called the way Calipari works the refs a sign of "psychological problems") to Chaney (who as Temple's coach in 1994 tried to attack Calipari in a postmatch press conference, screaming, "I'll kill you!"), Calipari has provoked more public vitriol than any of his colleagues. After his assault on Calipari, Chaney says, laughing, "There's a lot of guys who called me and said, 'Why'd you wait?'"
Asked what it is about Calipari that gets under people's skin, Pearl goes silent for 17 seconds. Finally he looks up and says, "You know... . No, I can't go there." After being told what Knight said about Calipari in Indiana, Pearl says, "Right. You know why Coach Knight takes that stance, O.K.?" Then he laughs, raises his eyebrows until his eyes are like quarters and stares meaningfully as he walks away.
Unlike Pearl, though, Calipari has never been personally charged with a major NCAA violation. And other coaches, such as Brown, are revered despite having had a Final Four run vacated. Knight may speak for many coaches and fans when he says that Calipari is what's wrong with college basketball, but not everyone can agree on what, exactly, wrong is.
"John has embraced what the college fan has not: the one-and-done player," longtime college basketball commentator Billy Packer said in February. "Even Kentucky fans have to [ask] after last year's team, Is this what the University of Kentucky is all about? Did these guys even go to school second semester?"
But for some coaches the discomfort with Calipari has a much earlier source. Twenty-five years ago, as a recruiting hotshot at Pitt, Calipari either stepped over an uncrossable line or was heinously slurred by a false rumor. In early 1986, while trying to dissuade a player from going to St. John's, Calipari supposedly told him that Redmen coach Lou Carnesecca was dying of cancer. Pitino, who denies ever believing the tale, says that Carnesecca, who was not sick, complained about the tactic at a Big East coaches meeting that spring.
Calipari called on Carnesecca to assure him it wasn't true; Carnesecca ever since has said he believes Calipari. But the tale ginned up an already white-hot recruiting war, tarred Calipari's name and, many believe, killed any chance of his landing the St. John's job in 1996 and 2004. When he interviewed at UMass in 1988, the first question from Ron Nathan, the head of the Minutemen's booster club, was, "Did you really say the guy was dying of cancer?"
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, an assistant under Calipari for seven years at UMass, says, "You know what that let people think? That Cal would do or say anything to get a player. That started everything."
Not exactly. The year before, Calipari had blown into Pitt fresh from three years at Kansas, where he'd grown from an unpaid scrub doling out peas and carrots to players in the dining hall to a valued staffer. Pitt had risen fast under coach Roy Chipman, and not long after Calipari's arrival as a top assistant the program's reputation began to buckle. In the fall of 1985 two former recruits alleged they had received payoff offers—from a booster and another assistant coach—and then Chipman resigned in midseason. When Paul Evans arrived from Navy in 1986, vowing to clean house, he fired everyone but Calipari. "When I talked to John, he said he wasn't happy doing it the way they were doing it previously—and wanted to do it the right way," Evans says. "That's why I gave him a shot."
It didn't hurt that, under Chipman, Calipari had steered one of the nation's top players, forward Brian Shorter of Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High, out of the city—not to mention away from Temple and Chaney—and to Virginia's Oak Hill Academy for his senior year. With Shorter all but sewn up when Evans arrived, Calipari was on a roll, and hardly shy about letting his new colleagues, assistants Mark Coleman and Norm Law, know it.
"We thought Cal big-timed us," says Coleman, now the coach at Western New Mexico. "Norm and I didn't speak favorably of him, and once we heard the cheating stuff, we had no idea. People would question, How can you work with that scumbag? But it was usually guys who had lost the recruiting war to him. Cal can talk to anyone; he can think you're the worst person in the world, and he'll make you feel you're the greatest. And he found the person most responsible for a kid—the parent, the AAU coach or the high school coach—better than anybody I've seen."
Calipari also worked the phone like a maestro, stroking the man Shorter called his "mentor," Simon Gratz assistant Bob Montgomery; keeping Oak Hill coach Steve Smith in the loop; and making sure Shorter was always pointing toward Pitt. "He taught me: If you have to stay on the phone three hours and hear the same story 15 times, that's what you do," Coleman says.
Another Calipari coup was Bobby Martin, a 6'9" center out of Atlantic City. In December 1986 he declared he was signing with Rollie Massimino at Villanova; the following April he changed his mind to sign with Pitt. To this day, Martin says, Villanova fans and even his best friend ask, What did you get paid? "The only thing I got paid," Martin says, laughing, "is no attention." He is often mentioned as the St. John's recruit Calipari tried to steal away—"Coach Lou having cancer?" Martin says. "Cal didn't tell me that. It never happened"—as is center Marvin Branch, who chose Kansas over Pitt in '87. "It's not true," says Branch, now a social worker living in Oskaloosa, Kans. "I never had a conversation with Calipari about St. John's or somebody having cancer."
By the end of the '87--88 season, Coleman says, "John wanted to move ahead. It was time for him to have a head-coaching job in Division I, and if he needed to step on someone's toes to get [there], he would do it. Unethical? Nothing that I ever saw. Cheating? Nothing that I saw or knew about. At times I envied him. He's the best recruiter, by far, of anyone in college coaching, and he's winning."
Glenn Wong, then head of the UMass sports management department and a member of the committee charged with vetting Calipari in 1988, called Massimino then. Wong played for Massimino in high school and loves the man. But as much as Massimino disliked Calipari, Wong says, he could give Wong no reason for UMass to pass on him. Contacted at his current coaching post, at Florida's Northwood University, Massimino says he thinks Calipari does "a good job" and, though he broke "a certain unwritten rule" by poaching Martin, didn't violate any NCAA bylaws. Asked if it's fair to say he has no problem with Calipari, Massimino raises his voice. "Don't put words in my mouth!" he says. "Everyone has different conceptions. He's not in my circle of friends. He's another coach: That's it."
There are moments, small ones, when Calipari can shrug off the way he's perceived by his peers. "I know I'm not a saint," he says, "but I'm not the guy I'm made out to be by others. Some of it is media driven. Some of it is driven by other coaches through the media: Drill this guy, he's going too fast, he can't be that good. And I say: Have at it. Hopefully I've done things the right way and treated people right."
But Calipari also is energized by friction, cultivates it at times like a combustible fuel. He knows he looked small when, as the Nets' coach in 1997, he called a beat writer "a f------ Mexican idiot." But he's still not above calling editors to savage writers he dislikes, and he takes a child's delight in zinging ESPN columnist Pat Forde—co-author of a book with Pitino, Calipari is quick to say—who has detailed Calipari's perceived misdeeds in print and on television. Even Calipari's 24-year-old daughter, Erin, teed off on Forde on Facebook. Twitter is a new and mostly benign toy, but when Calipari began his account at Kentucky in 2009, he wanted to institute Bash Wednesday, a weekly smackdown of adversaries large and small. He was dissuaded, but he still grins over the idea. He likes revenge.
"There are times I get mad and want to strangle somebody, and then I go to Mass and say, Stop me from having this feeling that I want to absolutely punch this guy in the face," Calipari says. "I'm from Pittsburgh. You come at me? I come at you twice. You hurt one of mine? I'm burning your village."
Some called him Little Vinnie, after his father. John worked his first connection at age nine, landing a prized gig as a batboy with the Moon High baseball team. Vincent Calipari played softball with the baseball coach, Ray Bosetti, so John got to ride the team bus with the big kids, be part of the games in the towns upriver from Pittsburgh. A big thrill it was, until the day in 1968 when racial strife roiled the area near Forgings Field, where Moon High was due to play predominantly black Coraopolis High. The team arrived to find the field besieged by angry black people, and after huddling a bit in the dugout, the players were rushed back onto the bus. Then the bus began to rock. Little Vinnie hit the floor with everyone else—"scared," he says, "to death."
The tension lasted for weeks. Calipari recalls leaving his grandmother's house in Coraopolis around that time, his dad anxious about her sleeping there alone, until her next-door neighbor, a black man named Prince Harlee, called out from his porch, "Don't worry about your mom, Vince. I got her. No one's going near her." Again, the value of connections.
The Caliparis lived by Moon High on Beaver Grade Road, John's parents in one bedroom, his two sisters in the other. John got the hallway. His dad's father, also named John, had come over young from Calabria in Italy, worked in the coal mines of West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, died short of 60 from black lung. Vince Calipari spent a year at the steelworks in Aliquippa, sweating off five pounds a day rolling pipe in the heat and dust. When he got a chance to pump fuel at the Pittsburgh airport, it felt like a lifeline.
He never made more than $16,000 a year. John's mom, Donna, worked in the cafeteria at the junior high, on her feet all day prepping food and dishing out ice cream. Payday was Friday, and by Wednesday the Caliparis' pantry showed a lot of empty. Vince took any overtime he could get, yet made sure on every warm day to cut the grass: front, side or back. "The yard was magnificent," John says. "A grinder is what he was."
John grew up cushioned, the lone boy between two girls. He worked as a ball boy for the Moon High basketball team in a little jacket and tie. Everybody was talking then about Pitt coach Buzz Ridl, his "amoeba defense" and the crew of local talent he led to the 1974 Elite Eight. Calipari learned to wedge open gym windows and slip a comb through loose door locks, and come Monday someone would complain to the Moon coach, "Johnny was in there shooting again." He was a decent point guard, fated to lead only the want-to stats: free throws, assists, charges taken. After a stray elbow shattered his cheek during his senior season at Clarion State, Calipari tried to check back into the game. For the next month he played in wrestling headgear.
Summers he hit Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh, first as a camper, then as a counselor so good that he was allowed to coach kids his own age: shirt always tucked in, socks just so. Calipari met every name in the business there, established or rising: Knight, Pitino, Chuck Daly. Kansas assistant Bob Hill recommended Calipari to Jayhawks coach Ted Owens in 1982, and Calipari's ticket was punched to Lawrence—for a no-pay job running KU's summer basketball camp. A year later Larry Brown took over and took notice. "John just had an unbelievable desire to learn, get better," Brown says. "He was a basketball junkie, like me, and he would do whatever I asked."
By then the fueling company had gone out of business; Vince lost his job. At 50 he took a part-time gig slinging suitcases for Piedmont Airlines, backbreaking work in the cold and wet. Each time John flew into Pittsburgh—and, later, Charlotte, where his parents moved in 1984 so Vince could take a full-time job as a baggage handler—his dad would get the flight number and meet him at the gate in his gear. They'd have a bite. It was a respite from days marked by near-manic intensity; not even John's marriage to Ellen Higgins, a secretary in the Kansas athletic office, could settle him down.
"Ego, brashness, an arrogance," Calipari says, describing himself then. "Why? What was I masking? I have to make it here. Where was I going to go? To the basement of my parents' home? There were rats down there. The attic had bats. I had nowhere to go. So to mask the fear of, Man, I don't know if I can do this, you become... ."
You become the kind of coach desperate programs want to hire. UMass was a basketball backwater then, with a tradition that began and ended with Julius Erving, but Pitino was an alum and the search committee's headhunter. He suggested four men: New Mexico assistant Larry Shyatt; Stu Jackson, Pitino's assistant with the Knicks; George Mason head coach Rick Barnes; and Calipari. After that, the story gets foggy, and it helps explain why Calipari and Pitino barely tolerate each other.
For decades Pitino has said that he pushed hard for Calipari and wrote a $5,000 check to UMass athletic director Frank McInerney to help cover Calipari's $63,000 salary. "The guy wouldn't let me out of the meeting until I wrote the check!" Pitino told SI in 2009. Early in his career Calipari described Pitino as one of his "three or four really good friends in coaching." Now, however, when first approached to talk about Calipari, Pitino says, "I really don't know him, so I'd prefer not to."
Asked why Pitino would say that, Calipari nearly chokes and says, "I would just tell you: I respect him, respect what he's done over his career." Then he yells in a voice thick with sarcasm, "And thank him for all the help he's given me over my career!"
Evans, the Pitt coach, remembers that it was Pitino—not Carnesecca—who brought up the rumor about Calipari and the cancer allegation at the coaches' meeting in '86. And Nathan, the Minutemen's booster, and others have told Calipari for years that Pitino's story of helping him get the UMass job and contributing to his salary is a myth. Instead, Nathan says, the search committee narrowed the pool to Shyatt and Calipari, voted and then threw the final decision to David Bischoff, dean of the school of physical education. "The vote was, I believe, three to two in favor of Larry Shyatt," Nathan says. "And I can tell you that Rick Pitino was not one of the two people who voted for John Calipari."
Wong says of Pitino's version, "That's not my recollection." Bischoff says that he never heard of a budget shortfall. McInerney died last May. Told of the search committee's comments, Pitino says he remembers no such vote and insists, "I didn't care who they hired, Calipari or Shyatt. The guy I would've loved to see was Stu Jackson."
Regardless, Pitino says, "It was really the worst job in college basketball at the time." And though he repeats that "I really don't know the guy," he says that in Amherst, Calipari did one of the three best program-building jobs in college history.
UMass hadn't made the NCAA tournament since 1962. Flint, then an assistant at Coppin State in Baltimore, heard plenty of warnings when he was considering a job with Calipari in 1989. "He was like the devil," Flint says. "Guys were like, You're going to be on probation." But what Frank Marino, a Five-Star coaching legend, said carried more weight. "Put five guys in a pitch-black room where nobody knows where the doors are and say, 'Find a way out,' " Marino told Flint. "John Calipari's going to get out first. That's why you go with him."
Within four years Calipari had made the Minutemen a force in the Atlantic 10, then a national power that achieved a No. 1 ranking and a trip to the 1996 Final Four, where they lost to, yes, Pitino's Kentucky team. Nearly 80% of Calipari's UMass players graduated.
The Final Four run was, of course, later vacated—and UMass was forced to give back the $151,000 it earned in postseason play—when All-America center Marcus Camby admitted to having accepted at least $28,000 in money, jewelry, prostitutes' services and car rentals from two sports agents while in school. Camby has maintained that Calipari never knew anything about it. Thomas Yeager, the chair of the NCAA infractions committee, agreed. "There is no doubt that you were unaware of the violations involving student-athlete Camby," Yeager wrote in a letter to Calipari dated June 8, 2004. "In a sense, you were an 'innocent victim' in this."
Calipari's detractors may wince at the word innocent, just as many dismiss his acts of generosity as "complicated." There are myriad stories of his sudden plane flights to appear at christenings or funerals of UMass personnel, or his loyalty to former assistants, players and staffers. Even Coleman, who doesn't call Calipari a friend, considers Calipari's reference letter "very instrumental" in landing him the head job at Drew University. Though Calipari coached Shorter for only one year, he welcomed his former player to UMass workouts, offered him a tryout with the Nets and encouraged him to return to Pitt to finish his studies. When Shorter graduated in December, at age 42, Calipari called to congratulate him.
Says Memphis associate AD Bob Winn, "Somebody would just send a letter or call and say, 'Do you know what your coach did? He showed up at six in the morning in the room of my dad, who's dying of cancer, and sat with him for several hours.' Things like that, John felt deeply about."
Plenty of coaches pay homage to the profession's elder statesmen, and it often provides a sweet photo op. Calipari paid to fly in Buzz Ridl's widow, Betty, not just to the 1996 Final Four but also to Memphis's appearance in the 2002 NIT title game and its Final Four run in '08. Maybe he was just looking for good ink—Calipari had known Ridl for just a month before he died, in 1995—but he put Betty up in his home when he was with the Nets and has kept in close touch with her over the last 15 years with visits, calls and personal notes. "I have a fistful, a wad: 'Thinking of you,' 'Pray for you every day,' 'We need you to cheer hard,' " says Betty's daughter, Betsy Ridl Baun.
In March 2009 an award-winning editorial cartoonist in Memphis, Bill Day, was let go in a mass layoff. He'd worked at The Commercial Appeal for 15 years, and he was devastated. Day knew Calipari in passing—their kids were friendly—but he'd never received a phone call from the man, and he certainly didn't expect one from Glendale, Ariz., where Memphis was preparing to play Missouri in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. But Calipari knows how bad a middle-aged man can feel when he's abruptly stripped of a career. He's from Pittsburgh.
"Bill? I just heard," Calipari said. "Listen, you've got a lot of talent. You're good, stay strong, help your family. I know you'll pull through it. You've got to brush yourself off and get going."
"And that's what he helped me do," Day says. "I cannot tell you how low my spirits were. It helped a lot, that he would take time to call me. And I still have never heard from anyone from the paper, no colleagues, not for two damn years."
Day poured himself back into his work and went on to win the prestigious 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for his cartoons for the United Feature Syndicate in 2009. "John's name is on that bust for me," Day says. "He gave me the strength to come back. I found the gas again."
As those close to Calipari attest, the years have helped make him more open, less self-centered. "Cal's evolved," Brown says. Some old enemies have become friends. After their wars ended in the Atlantic 10, Calipari cultivated Chaney, picking his brain about his zone defense, inviting him to his annual coaches' retreat. "I admire him," Chaney says, "and he knows that."
Not even the second blot on Calipari's record—the 2007--08 season vacated by Memphis because someone other than guard Derrick Rose reportedly took his one passing SAT test in high school—bothers Chaney. (Rose denies any wrongdoing in the matter.) But how can a coach not know about his star recruit's SAT? How could Calipari, renowned for being so detail oriented, twice be so in the dark?
"If John said he didn't know, that's good enough for me," Chaney says. "I can see how some of these things can get past. Especially nowadays, they can present you with a youngster who's tainted. Believe me."
Is he a superagent? The most powerful man in sports? William Wesley has been called both because of his weblike connections with LeBron James, Jay-Z, the Miami Hurricanes, Michael Jordan, the Dallas Cowboys and nearly every big name, old and new, in pro and college basketball—not least among them John Calipari. But officially? "I'm a consultant to CAA," Wesley says. "Not a registered agent. I'm not smart enough to pass the test."
He smirks. At 46 Wesley has reached a position of influence that most agents would kill for. Because he has a reputation for funneling many top-rated players to the coaches, programs and teams he favors, few people in the game dare refuse his call. Who knows how sport's hidden hand might help? Whether Worldwide Wes tried to broker last year's rumored Coach Cal--LeBron package with the Chicago Bulls (all involved deny it) and whether he persuaded Michael Gilchrist, the nation's top high school small forward, to sign with Calipari in November, isn't important. Just the idea that he may have that kind of juice makes him too big to ignore.
"He's become the bogeyman," Calipari says. The two men met in the mid-1980s, when Calipari unsuccessfully recruited Camden (N.J.) High's scoring juggernaut, Kevin Walls, for Kansas. Wesley and his good friend Leon Rose (now the agent for James at CAA, which also represents Calipari) had grown up playing against Louisville's famed Camden Connection—Walls, Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson—and Wesley, working at a Cherry Hill, N.J., store, Pro's Shoe, had become close with the trio. Wesley grew disgusted that Wagner, Thompson and, especially, Walls were chewed up and spit out at Louisville; none of the Camden Three has earned a degree from the school, and Walls, a 44.8-point-a-game scorer in high school, quit the team midway through his sophomore year after a falling-out with then head coach Denny Crum. "The kid should've gone to Kansas," Wesley says of Walls.
In the late '90s, when it became clear that Dajuan Wagner—Milt's son and Wesley's godson—would be a top prospect, Wesley was determined that history not repeat itself. He was living in Chicago then, and Calipari, after a little more than two disappointing seasons with the Nets, had landed in Philadelphia as Brown's assistant with the 76ers. "When I was sitting there, watching a Sixers game, and I saw Coach Cal, I said, I'm going to see if he's going to get back into [college] coaching," Wesley says. "I approached Cal. We talked about Kevin Walls."
At Brown's urging Calipari took the Memphis job when it opened up in 2000. But the school's limitations were many—Calipari still talks about the train tracks running through campus—and he realized that landing Wagner, then the nation's top junior, would entail a package deal. Dajuan was extraordinarily close with his best friend and housemate, forward Arthur Barclay, and, says Wesley, "where Arthur Barclay went to school, Dajuan was going to school." Meanwhile, Milt Wagner was looking to get into coaching. Calipari signed Barclay and hired Milt as his coordinator of basketball operations. The following year Dajuan enrolled at Memphis for his one college season.
Calipari endured much criticism for the moves, but Wesley didn't care. He was more interested in what happened next. Calipari pressed Milt Wagner to finish his degree at Memphis, kept him on staff for four years after Dajuan left for the NBA and has made sure he has had work, first as an assistant at UTEP and now at Auburn. Barclay, meanwhile, had an underwhelming career at Memphis but graduated in 2005 with a degree in urban studies. To Wesley, with his mouth at many a talented player's ear, this was everything. It meant Cal takes care of his own.
"Love is an action," Wesley says. "You've got to show it. That's what Cal's done for his players, his coaches, and he continues to do it. If you call me and you have a son and you say, 'Who would you recommend?' I'm going to say there's one coach I trust impeccably."
Wesley is often credited with sending point guards Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans—along with Evans's personal strength coach—to Calipari, and many observers find the dynamic unsettling. Calipari was once quoted as calling Worldwide Wes a "goodwill ambassador" for the Memphis program, but he says that's wrong. "I said, 'For me, personally,' " Calipari says, adding that Wesley is also close with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Still, rivals don't like that Calipari has any inside edge; last year Pitino, appearing in a report on ESPN, all but called Wesley Calipari's secret weapon. "I'm losing a lot of players to Kentucky," Pitino said.
Both Wesley and Calipari scoff at the notion that their closeness creates some kind of unholy conveyor belt: Wesley gets players to Cal, who turns players into professionals, who then sign with Leon Rose at CAA. Dajuan did sign with Rose, but Evans and Derrick Rose are represented by Arn Tellem, and last year's No. 1 pick, Kentucky's John Wall, signed with Dan Fegan at BEST. "None of my best players have gone to CAA," Calipari says. "Look, in this profession everything is about the relationships you have, whether it's high school coaches, AAU coaches, pro players. Over 20 years, you create a lot of goodwill and friendships. That's what it is. If you're not being fair with kids, guess what? All those people over time build up too, and they're working against you."
But relationships can be sticky things, and few programs know that better than Kentucky's. The school has been on probation in every decade for the last 60 years, and its football program began serving a three-year sentence in 2002, just after Todd took over as president. He vowed that under his watch it wouldn't happen again. In 2007, when athletic director Mitch Barnhart brought up Calipari, Todd was so put off by Memphis's reliance on, as he puts it, "bogus high schools"—transcript-padding prep schools that the NCAA has since cracked down on—that he barred any contact. "I was uncomfortable enough," says Todd, "that I wasn't ready to do that."
In March 2009, Kentucky compliance director Sandy Bell was charged with rechecking the NCAA's assessment of Calipari's role in the UMass scandal, and she sat in on all his NCAA interviews during the Memphis investigation. She gave Calipari a clean bill. The relationship between Calipari and Wesley, meanwhile, had to be addressed. Before Calipari's hiring, Wesley called Bell "because," he says, "I knew people would say, 'Sandy Bell is going to get Worldwide Wes.'"
"Well, that depends, Wes," Bell told Wesley. "Here's how we do business at Kentucky: My goal is to make sure that Cal is successful here and does things the right way and that we document that he does things the right way. If you want the same things, I don't see why we can't work together."
Wesley flew in to see her in Lexington that spring. Calipari asked Bell to draft a letter outlining for Wesley what he could and could not do as the coach's friend. During Calipari's tenure in Memphis, Wesley had attended games with Calipari's tickets and sat behind the team bench. But because of Wesley's relationship with Gilchrist—he grew up across the street from Gilchrist's mother, and Gilchrist has vacationed with the Wesley family since he was a child—Bell asked the NCAA to review Wesley again, and then again once he took an official role with CAA. This year, because of Gilchrist, Wesley has not received any free tickets. He has called Bell whenever he's traveled near the team. Few will believe it, but in Gilchrist's case Bell is certain that Wesley provided no undue influence. "He tried to get Michael to go to Villanova, with his daughter," Bell says. "It's not that he's out recruiting for us."
Bell says Calipari has been open to all her questions and intrusions. She has told him he cannot recruit academically risky prospects, and she has backed him off at least two recruits who seemed like trouble. She vets every donation his foundation makes. She has taken charge of his game tickets, tracking his guests. It's no easy job. "Cal's probably got 100 William Wesleys scattered around," Wesley says. "He's more connected than me."
Two strikes. That's what Calipari has hanging over him, whenever his face flashes on TV, wherever he goes. The irony, of course, is that he yearned for Kentucky, needed a premier post where he'd have the tradition and the fan base and the money all behind him. You bet Calipari wants to make one more Final Four run, win a national title, have it all stick. "You can ask me anything," he told Todd in Chicago, "because I want this job." But now that he's got it, the spotlight shines ever brighter. Kentucky isn't UMass or Memphis; its basketball program is a 365-day object of scrutiny—"the absolute heartbeat," says Barnhart, of the state. Fall from here, and odds are you don't climb this high again.
And two years on, Calipari's still answering questions about Memphis. "We did everything we were supposed to do as a staff, as a school," he says. "Does it make me mad? Yeah. But I'm going to say this too: This stuff happened under my watch. You're responsible for everything. It's just hard to be held accountable for everything." But he also understands it, this two-strike count. "Winning at UMass? If it wasn't me, I'd probably think the guy had to do stuff to win there," Calipari says. "And then Memphis? How in the world did they become Number 1?" He raps the table with his knuckles once, twice. "He had to do something."
Strange: He's finally arrived at his dream job, but at times Calipari can seem like just another boomer dogged by a problematic past, waging the middle-ager's usual losing battles. His mother died in November, but he has had little time to grieve. His ailing dad is banging around alone in another city. His three kids are growing fast. One day he's nominated for a United Nations peace award for washing those kids' feet, the next his wife is scolding him for calling forward Terrence Jones "a selfish mother------" on TV.
If the Wildcats' spring ends early, there will be matchups Calipari won't watch. There are rivals he can't abide, and vice versa; even without being asked he gives you a list: Pitino, Pearl, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun. "Are there times that there's envy and jealousy in our profession—and in me? Yes," Calipari says, "but I don't want to feel that way, which is why I don't watch a lot of games."
Why, then, did he stop the chant that ugly night at Rupp? His gesture might have been as selfish as it was noble, because he knows those signs, that hate, were there for him in the past and likely will be in the future. "How would I want to be treated," Calipari says, "if they were saying that about me?"
So he does his good works, ignoring the speculation that it's all some kind of atonement. He goes to church daily, mornings mostly, and though he concedes that this is a sign of someone with a lot of sins to work out—"And I'm telling you, I'm a sinner like everybody else"—he's there to pray for friends and family, all the ailing strangers.
"I do not pray for myself," Calipari says. "I do not." Then his voice drops: Something about not coming clean on this feels wrong. "Well, I do a little bit," he says. Yes, Kentucky's coach admits, he will kneel in the quiet and whisper the words, "Bless me." He'll ask for mercy for the things he's done and hope to God that someone will hear.
Calipari once declared that "everything in this game is marketing," and it's a constant struggle for rivals to decide where his sell begins and ends.
Knight may speak for many coaches and fans when he says Calipari is what's wrong with college hoops, but not everyone can agree on what, exactly, wrong is.
"Unethical? Nothing I ever saw," a former colleague says of Calipari. "Cheating? Nothing I knew about. At times I envied him. He's the best recruiter, and he's winning."
"John just had an unbelievable desire to learn, get better," Brown says. "He was a basketball junkie like me, and he would do whatever I asked."
Calipari called a recently laid-off editorial cartoonist in Memphis whom he hardly knew. "Stay strong, help your family," Cal said. "I know you'll pull through it."
"Winning at UMass?" Calipari says. "If it wasn't me, I'd probably think the guy had to do stuff to win there. And Memphis? How did they become Number 1?"
Photograph by GREG NELSON
CLARION SPORTS INFORMATION
EARLY EDUCATION Calipari's ascent to Lexington—where he has the richest deal in the sport—began on a Division II bench.
[See caption above]
JIM MAHONEY/BOSTON HERALD
BUMPY START Chaney (left) once threatened to kill Calipari, but they have since developed a mutual respect.
NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW Pitino (left), who prefers not to talk about Calipari, either did or didn't help him get his start at UMass.
MARK ZEROF/US PRESSWIRE
LOOKS ARE DECEIVING Pearl (right) and Calipari dislike each other, but only one of them was charged with major NCAA violations.
PRESSURE COOKER In seeking the Kentucky job, Calipari also sought the scrutiny and obligation to win that come with it.