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A decade into his tenure, Calipari has same drive, desire to succeed

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

John Calipari begins his 10th season as coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. He is shown at his first Big Blue Madness. (Bill Thiry/Kentucky Today )

A decade has passed since John Calipari took over at the University of Kentucky. Has it been 10 years?

“That is not that long ago,” he said. “You’re not talking 15 years ago.”
Calipari, who has compiled a 275-64 record in his tenure with the Wildcats, said the first decade has been “amazing” adding that his time in Lexington has “flown by.” Calipari still recalls the first time he explored the possibility of leaving Memphis to coach the Wildcats and reached out to retired Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall.

“I can remember asking coach (Joe B.) Hall, how long of a run is this? He said about 10 years,” Calipari said last month. “The lifespan of a (university) president and athletic director at this level of coaching is usually about 10 years and then after that it gets harder and harder.”

Calipari admits the job has aged him somewhat but said he has the same enthusiasm and desire to succeed as he did when he stepped on the podium and was hired to replace Billy Gillispie on April Fool’s Day in 2009.

“You still see yourself a certain way until you look in the mirror,” he said. “Then, you say, ‘What in the hell happened there?’ Everywhere I go, I joke and go, ‘Go look at a picture of me at the press conference when I first took the job and look at me now.’”

Even his son Brad Calipari, a junior, has noticed a difference.

“Is he 59? I would say he’s about 68,” he quipped.

Although coaching at Kentucky is demanding, Calipari receives solid support from the administration, which helps ease his workload on a yearly basis.

“This is one of those places where you can coach a basketball team and still be involved in the community, but the university department takes care of the things that when you are at a smaller school, you’ve got to do yourself,” he said. “There are so many things that I don’t have to touch here that literally I oversaw all that stuff when I was at the other schools. The biggest thing for me is the impact we can have on the kids and their families.

“That will keep me going. If I ever get to a point (where) I’m not feeling that I’m not having that kind of impact (and) that the program is not having that kind of impact, that’s when you start thinking, ‘I’m not going to do this for numbers, I’m not doing it to win more than the other guy.’ That’s not how I operate, but right now, this thing has been pretty good for everybody.”

Coaching the Wildcats is his main job, his day doesn’t begin and end with a clipboard. It goes beyond the usual task.

“Coaching here … it’s not just sitting in a chair and just not watching game tape, you’re involved in a lot of stuff here,” he said. “If you don’t want to take that on, this is probably the wrong job (for you). The seat carries a different weight here in this state. You can move people for good or you can move them the wrong way if that’s what you choose to do.”

Calipari credits legendary and late coach Adolph Rupp for setting the standard for the program that stands as the winningest men’s basketball team in college history.

“He’s the one who created what this program meant to this state,” Calipari said. “He did it and it’s amazing. When he started there was nothing here. This day and age with social media and all of the other stuff, it’s just hard to start now and in a year or two and say, ‘I’m going to stay at a place 50 years.’ Too many things can happen.

“There’s too much stuff, stuff that would get pushed under the rug, just doesn’t get pushed under the rug — stuff that was not the big of a deal (then) that would be in your little region, is now national. You had one or two people that you dealt with media-wise, now you’re in a totally different environment for coaches.”

Calipari guided the Wildcats to their eighth national title in 2012 and admits “we could have won nine more.” His only regret is not winning another title with the platoon squad of 2014-15, which went 38-1, losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

“It doesn’t keep me awake at night, but when you talk about it, I wish we could have gone 40-0,” he said. “I wish we could have done it. … It’s different when you have teams for three years than when you have them for one. It’s a different animal. We easily could have won the years we were in the finals, the 2015 team and we could have had four or five (teams win it all). We don’t. We could have.”

Calipari was relieved when the Wildcats captured the title in 2012 but added the expectation never changes.

“Everywhere I go, people say, how do you do it?” he said. “What do you mean? They expect you win it every year and these people expect that,” he said. “I don’t feel that. I mean, they want to win it every year and there are some that are the outliers that would create anything they could to make it like this (hasn’t ) been great, but I don’t feel like if we don’t win a national title, then I’m just busted, I don’t feel that way. I say to them is, they want to be in the hunt for recruits, they want to have a chance to win it every year and they would love to win it every year, but they want to make sure we’re one of those teams every year. That’s fair I think, being at Kentucky, that’s a fair thing to work (toward). My hope is that every year, whether it be in recruiting or one of those teams that are talked about, we are one of them.”

As he completes his first decade with the Wildcats, Calipari’s goals remain unchanged.

“Every year, I’m coaching to win a national title,” he said. “That’s what I’m coaching for, every year that I coach here. Have we been in the hunt every year? I would say every year but one and if the kid (Nerlens Noel) didn’t get hurt, who knows if that would have been every year?”

Although chasing that second national title, in addition to a busy recruiting schedule, keeps him busy, Calipari admired that coaching “it’s more about the process as you get older.”

“It’s more about how is this affecting the people around you more than what’s in it for me. The longer I do this, it’s less about what I have accomplished. At some point, I will look back and say, ‘We’ve had a pretty good run.’ Right now, I don’t, I just keep pushing and seeing where we can go with this. You learn that when you make it about everyone else, life becomes easier, you’re finished with just trying to grab, push and pull and now you’re pushing out. It’s easier to do that than drag it into you. You wish you were that way when you were 30, but you’re trying to survive. I was. I had nowhere to fall. Your approach to it was a lot different (back then).”

Unlike his previous stops, the Kentucky coach is “not as anxious to leave.”

“I’m probably going to stay much longer than I would ever thought I would stay in coaching,” he said. “This platform is going to go away (from me) at some point. No one is going to worry about what I’m saying or what he thinks or I get caught at times and think, ‘I wonder if someone will say, Hey Cal, let’s go get coffee and talk basketball when I’m done?’ I try to take care of veteran coaches any chance I can because of that. You’re here and it’s a position … it took me 20 years to get a job like this.”

And he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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