NIT brings Calipari home to Moon Township

Bob Cohn
| Monday, March 18, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

Kentucky coach John Calipari presided over a light workout Monday at Sewall Center on the Robert Morris campus. Some of his former coaches and old pals were there. Afterward, Calipari pointed beyond the doors and the parking lot toward his house less than a mile away. He mentioned his grandmother, who worked in the school cafeteria.

“I knew there were only two or three places they would send us,” he said. “They knew I grew up here.”

“They” was the NIT selection committee. Kentucky is the reigning NCAA champion, but a bad loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament ended any hope of defending the title.

Calipari, 54, would be going home, back to Moon Township.

A confluence of events created this unusual scenario. Missing six players who were NBA draft picks, Kentucky never found its groove, and that was before talented center Nerlens Noel suffered a season-ending knee injury Feb. 12.

With no NCAA Tournament to anticipate, Calipari was asked what the “mood” was like in Lexington. Calipari said he didn't know.

“Nothing was thrown at me,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mount St. Mary's knocked RMU out of the NCAA Tournament picture with an upset in the Northeast Conference Tournament.

The favored Colonials, the regular-season champion, got an automatic NIT bid.

Kentucky's home court, Rupp Arena, is hosting NCAA Tournament second- and third-round games this week. The old Memorial Coliseum could have been used for an NIT game, but staffing problems nixed that idea.

“Two weeks ago the administration came to me and said if we don't finish strong, we're not gonna be able to host a first-round game. ‘Are you all right with that?' ” he asked. “I said, ‘Yeah, I'm not above the rest of the world.' ... But sometimes the committee says, ‘Hey, Cal's from Pittsburgh. It would be a good story.'

“I will tell you: If I did have something to do with it, I would say, ‘Let's play Robert Morris at their place.' And it would be a terrific game. ... It's a place with good people and a great program.”

Bill Sacco, who coached Calipari at Moon Area High School in the late 1970s before the point guard left for Clarion — he transferred from UNC-Wilmington — handled the ticket detail.

But no freebies; Sacco had to shell out $15 apiece. He still coaches, now at Cornell High School, and the NCAA has rules.

“I make sure everything is dotted properly and crossed properly,” said Sacco, who remains close to Calipari. “The only thing you get for free is friendship.”

Sacco's predecessor at Moon, Skip Tatala, sat courtside and reminisced about how Calipari wore a bow tie and red sweater vest as the team's fifth-grade ballboy, and how he used to hoist Calipari through locked gym windows to open the place up.

“When he comes back here, he never forgets the people,” Tatala said.

RMU assistant Mike Byrnes was one of Calipari's first recruits at UMass, his first coaching job.

“I wasn't a very good coach, and Mike wasn't a very good player,” Calipari said.

One of Calipari's assistants, Orlando Antigua, played and coached at Pitt. Calipari, too, is an ex-Pitt assistant.

Tickets sold out quickly Monday. Sewall seats 3,500, but five times that many, or possibly six, could have been sold.

“Every game we play is someone's Super Bowl,” Calipari said. “It's gonna be nuts.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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