Gorman: For Cornell's Sacco, Coach Cal is a pal
When Bill Sacco was asked how tiny Cornell got to the WPIAL Class A championship game at Duquesne's Palumbo Center, he didn't hesitate to wisecrack that the Raiders came by bus.
His biggest fan came by private jet.
It's not every day that the charismatic coach of the top-ranked team in college basketball comes to see a high school game in Western Pennsylvania. But there was John Calipari sitting courtside on press row Friday afternoon after flying in from Lexington, where his Kentucky Wildcats are 28-1 this season.
"With all the negative things you hear about John Calipari," said Joe DeGregorio, who coached Calipari at Clarion, "let me ask you this: what college coach would come to see Cornell play?"
After 40 years coaching high school basketball, including a precocious point guard named John Calipari at Moon in the late 1970s, Sacco was making his first career WPIAL finals appearance. His Cornell team is short on size but big on heart, as the sixth-seeded Raiders beat No. 3 Clairton and No. 2 North Catholic before facing top-seeded Lincoln Park.
"I can't knock these guys for anything they do," Sacco said. "They took me on a ride. It's been 40 years. I'm very humbled by this fact.
"I know coaches have been here a hundred times and have their names engraved on the walls back here. For me, it's my first time, and I really relish that. I thank them for bringing me here. Otherwise, I'd just be another coach."
Not to Coach Cal.
Calipari wasn't going to miss this game. Never mind that Kentucky had a film session at 1:15 p.m., less than four hours before Cornell's tipoff. The Wildcats also are scheduled to practice at noon today and travels to face Florida on Sunday. Calipari and assistant Orlando Antigua, the former Pitt player and coach, flew in for the Cornell game and planned to head back shortly afterward.
Calipari recalled how his 1978 Moon Tigers were the first to make the playoffs in three decades, convinced that it could accomplish the feat by a young Sacco who turned players who didn't know any better into believers. Calipari has spent a career convincing college teams to do the same thing, first at Massachusetts, then at Memphis. Now, he's coaching a perennial power in Kentucky.
"He treated us right," Calipari said. "Sac was about the players and worked at it. I've respected him as a coach, as a man, as a mentor for a long time. It continues to this day. That's the way it's supposed to be."
Calipari always tries to return the favor, making sure Sacco shares in his success. When UMass played at West Virginia in January 1995, Sacco was invited to sit on the bench. The Minutemen were ranked No. 1 nationally but trailed the Mountaineers by 18 with 4:48 remaining in regulation.
"I walk down and said to Sac, 'You understand if we lose this, you'll never sit on my bench again,' " Calipari said. "We won in overtime. He never jumped higher."
Sacco worked wonders this season with Cornell, which started only one player taller than 6-foot.
Unfortunately for his Raiders, they ran into the Kentucky of WPIAL Class A basketball, a Lincoln Park team that some suggest is the best collection of recruits in Western Pennsylvania. The Leopards even have an Anthony Davis look-alike in 6-10 Temple recruit Devontae Watson, who finished with 17 points and 17 rebounds and one blocked shot shy of a triple-double in Lincoln Park's 74-57 victory.
Calipari couldn't resist coaching from his courtside seat. He wondered aloud why Cornell kept driving to the basket with Watson in the way and urged Sacco to call a timeout when the Raiders fell behind by double digits.
Mostly, though, he was proud of the way overmatched Cornell kept competing.
"He's done a good job with his program. It's hard to get here, to be in this position. You'd like him to win. Just to get here is impressive, especially at a small school," Calipari said of Sacco, who was elated when calling after Tuesday's semifinal victory. "He was so emotional, so happy for his players. He's called me all year about his team: 'You can't believe this team I'm coaching. They play hard; they play together.' "
Cornell played hard and together to the end, which left the players in tears. Some of the Raiders said they never noticed Calipari, that their focus was on the game and not who was in the stands.
But senior swingman Corey Mackey, who led Cornell with 18 points, couldn't resist mentioning what a great feeling it was to have the coach of the No. 1 team in the nation there, that Calipari's presence made the Raiders play even harder.
"It's definitely a good feeling that he came," Cornell senior point guard Dustin Goins added. "It just goes to show the influence Coach Sac had on his life. He's had that same influence on mine, too."