John Calipari is getting ready to tip off his sixth season as head basketball coach for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. In his first five seasons, his UK teams have gone 152-37 with three trips to the Final Four and the 2012 National Championship. Calipari has once again landed one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, and paired with returnees like Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, plus Andrew and Aaron Harrison from the 2014 National Runner-Up team, the Cats figure to begin the 2014-15 campaign at the top of the polls. They get it underway with “Big Blue Madness” on Friday.
KENT TAYLOR: You’ve always liked short rotations, is it going to be tough to expand that?
JOHN CALIPARI: Jack Leaman, when I was at UMass, told me I played too many people. Jack Leaman coached Julius Erving and the great teams. Coach Wooden, I talked to him in 2010, he said, “I like you’re team, but you’re playing too many people, but I understand why you do it. We played 6, maybe 7, you earned your spot and you kept your spot. I understand recruiting and all the things that have gone on, there are no JV teams, it’s a different deal now.” I’ve never done this before, what I’m about to do. I’m studying it, I’m trying to figure out ways so that I make sure that no one is left out, or this doesn’t hurt anybody. This isn’t like, â€˜okay, everybody is equal.â€™ That’s not the case, if a couple of guys deserve a few more minutes than everybody else, they’re going to get that. If we have to play a certain way at the end of games to win, then we’re going to play that way.
TAYLOR: When the Cleveland Cavaliers called you, did you have an inkling that LeBron James would end up there?
CALIPARI: Um, yeah, yeah I knew it was a distinct possibility. I didn’t know it was done, or it would have been done. I don’t believe it was done at the time. My decision was based on four young men, really five, that decided they were going to come back to college. They didn’t come back because they wanted me to be happy, or they love Coach Cal, that’s not what they did. I even had a team meeting and said, “Did you come back to make me happy?” I went, Willie, Alex, I went through all the twins. They all kind of smiled and said, no. They came back for us to help develop and prepare them, so when they hit their dream they’re ready to succeed and they didn’t think they were ready. That being said, if I had taken off, they couldn’t put their names in the draft, they had to stay. Maybe Kenny Payne gets the job, maybe Kenny Payne doesn’t get the job. Maybe a coach comes in and says, I’m going to play my own people. Who knows what would have happened. That was the hardest thing that I wasn’t going to be able to get by.
TAYLOR: Does that force you to take stock and realize how much you do enjoy this job?
CALIPARI: My move may not be in basketball. I don’t know if I’ll ever retire, I’ll probably retire, and it may not be in basketball.
TAYLOR: You have said many times that this job has about a 10 year shelf life, does that still sound about right?
CALIPARI: In 2010 five guys got drafted in the first round, and it showed me that I had something different here. I went from the business of basketball to the business of helping families. By doing that it helped the school, it helped the program, it helped the athletic department. Think of everything that’s happening around here. I’m not saying it’s all geared to basketball, but a lot of light that’s been brought here and a lot of the positive stuff has been through those players. By them going pro, some after a year, two years, it hasn’t hurt the program, as a matter of fact, it’s helped the program. I became a tool for these families and a conduit for these families to help them reach their dreams.
TAYLOR: What is the key to get all of the egos to mesh and play together?
CALIPARI: They have to know I’m about them. If I were about me, or this program, well these kids don’t share because they’re trying to survive, they’re trying to eat. If they know, I have your back, you’re fine, worry about your teammates, worry about winning. I’m not going to hold you back. I’m not going to talk you into staying. If you have an opportunity, that will be your choice with your family. That’s what we’ve been doing here, and that won’t change. Let’s just say in the next two years we get 18 guys in the and we look forward and we’re going to have another 17, I may do this for a while, as long as I see what’s happening here for families. It may never happen again. The guy may not want to do it this way, and maybe you can’t do it at other schools this way, you can do it here. So maybe I ride it and say, let’s just keep this going a few more years. There will be a time when I retire, and it may not be in basketball.
TAYLOR: How is your hip and how much does that affect your day-to-day job?
CALIPARI: You can see on my face that I’m sleeping. Last year, you could say it was the season or this job. You sleep two hours a night, you wake up 12 times in a night, it’s hard to stay focused. It’s hard to really have the frame of mind you need to do this job. I’m sleeping now, I’ve got to get back in shape. I went from the operation to a little bit of a recovery to back at it. I have not gotten my rhythm. I’ve missed Mass for three weeks. I got to get back in my rhythm of getting up, going to Mass, working out, practice, and I’m not in that rhythm right now.
TAYLOR: How good is Derek Willis and how good can he be?
CALIPARI: He and Dominique. Dominique is the same way. One; they’re Kentucky kids that wanted to be in this program. Derek Willis has gained 20 pounds. Dominique has just improved his shot, now the program is rising with them. A lot of kids came back, which means we’ve got a full team. I don’t know what that means for them right now. All I know is, they want to get better as players and they are. Derek Willis is like an A, B student. I think he may have had all A’s last term. This is a kid that’s come here, that’s focused on academics, that’s focused on basketball, is smiling. There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing a young man come out of that shell to blossom into something more. Having that self discipline that turns into that self respect, that turns into that positive vibe that he gives out now.
TAYLOR: What is the craziest question that a parent has asked you during a recruiting visit?
CALIPARI: Most of them are serious. I’ll tell you something that’s funny. I go in and I have a story to tell and Tony Barbee is my assistant, and we walk out of the house and he says, “You told that story twice.” I said, “No I didn’t.” He said, “You told it early and then you told it again before we left.” I called the Mom and said, “Did I tell that story twice?” She said, “Yeah you did.” I said, “Why didn’t you say something?” She said, “It was a pretty funny story, I liked hearing it again.” A guy walks in your home and your child is a special child, like a genius, and you want that genius to blossom into something special. We have fun in there, and I want them to feel good about it, but I want them to feel that they can trust us with their child.
TAYLOR: How important is being a salesman to being successful in college basketball today?
CALIPARI: Under sell, over deliver, that’s sales. Under sell, over deliver. So that when they see what is happening within this program, results move people. Numbers don’t lie, 29 guys in the NBA, $820 million dollars of created wealth for the families of the kids that I’ve coached. Throw in a shoe contract or two, it’s at a billion dollars. Anthony (Davis) and that crew haven’t been paid a second contract. John Wall and DeMarcus (Cousins) and those guys in four years will get another contract, so you’re talking in the billions. Do your kids get better? That sells. Getting them from point A to point B to point C.
TAYLOR: Most of the success here has come before any of the former players became big time NBA players, how much will that help your sales job? Â
CALIPARI: What I tell all these kids, I can help you get in the league, 29 guys, but I’m not coaching you anymore. I’m not making the decisions, I’m not working you out anymore. You have to fall back on all these habits, that hopefully you took serious here. If you do, I can show you all the guys that have done well. They’ve not all been one and done McDonald’s All-Americans. You’ll say that he only takes a guy that’s a pro before he gets there. Come on now, Josh Harrellson was absolutely Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before we got here. Eric Bledsoe, no one knew who he was.