Moon native Calipari achieves dream
By John Grupp
Published: Sunday, June 28, 2009
Since being hired at the University of Kentucky three months ago, John Calipari arguably has put together the best spring recruiting class in college basketball history.
He visited the governor's mansion in Frankfort, Ky., and made a weeklong trek to China, all while updating his 200,000-plus followers on Twitter.
Yet, through it all, Calipari remembered his roots.
The new Kentucky coach has arranged for his Wildcats to play his alma mater, Division II Clarion, on Nov. 6 in an exhibition game at Rupp Arena.
It is symbolic of the close ties to Western Pennsylvania for Calipari, who was born in Sewickley and raised in Moon before taking over one of the most tradition-rich basketball program in the land.
"In my eyes, John Calipari has never forgotten where he came from and the people who helped him along the way," said Joe DeGregorio, who coached him at Clarion in the early 1980s.
The two-time national coach of the year concedes that he still hasn't caught his breath since arriving at Kentucky on March 31 with an eight-year, $31.65 million contract that makes him the highest-paid coach in college "asketball.
"Not yet," he said. "They've got me bouncing around."
Calipari, 50, inducted this spring into the West Penn Sports Hall of Fame, said he plans to swing through Pittsburgh this summer to visit former coaches and relatives and, of course, grab some pizza in Beaver County.
"What makes John special is that he really cares about people," said Marshall athletic director Bob Marcum, who was Calipari's boss at Massachusetts, where Calipari from 1988-96. "He's a great individual."
Shooting for the Moon
When Calipari grew up next to Moon High School, he developed a bond with, of all people, the school janitors.
He befriended them and, in turn, they would unlock the gymnasium doors when he wanted to shoot around.
"The gyms were never closed off when John was with you," said Calipari's Moon teammate, Terry Friedl, 50, of Pleasanton, Calif. "He would negotiate with the janitors. They loved him. They always opened the gym for him. Late at night, Sunday morning, it didn't matter."
Decades later, Calipari still knows how to open doors.
Calipari quickly showed his recruiting prowess at Kentucky. He landed a four-man class that includes two of the nation's top seniors, guard John Wall and forward DeMarcus Cousins.
The late-spring haul left recruiting services in awe of his quick work and prompted the national media to christen Kentucky No. 1 in at least one preseason poll for the 2009-10 season.
"It's about as good as it's ever been, as quickly as he's done it," said Clark Francis, editor and publisher of Hoopscoop.com . "I don't know that anybody in the spring has turned a program around as quickly as he has."
The spring included some controversy. Last month, the NCAA Committee on Infractions investigated alleged major rule violations at Calipari's former school, Memphis, in 2007-08.
The latest problems — reportedly involving former star guard Derrick Rose and his college entrance exams — served to rekindle memories of violations when Calipari's Massachusetts team was forced to vacate its 1996 Final Four appearance in the wake of the Marcus Camby scandal.
Kentucky officials have said Calipari is not at risk of being charged with any NCAA violations in the case and they knew about the allegations when they hired him.
"I think he gets a bad reputation because he's a great recruiter and everyone assumes that he's doing something illegal," said former Central Catholic star Jim McCoy, who played for Calipari at Massachusetts from 1988-92. "I highly doubt that's the case."
Calipari, the son of a Pittsburgh airport fueler who never made more than $16,000 a year, has come a long way from the kid who sneaked into the gym to practice the game he loved.
Even as a youngster, he revealed a keen business insight and a contagious personality. He was class president and team captain at Moon.
As a sophomore at Clarion (he attended North Carolina-Wilmington as a freshman), he ran a basketball camp at Moon. He also bought two trailer/mobile homes and rented them to fellow Clarion students.
"We lived in a trailer off-campus," Calipari said. "We figured with the rent we paid, we could buy this trailer. It's a hysterical story, to be honest with you. My dad always said if you think about it and you talk about it, someone will knock on your door. A lady knocked on our door and said she heard we were looking for trailers. It was my first foray into real estate."
Of course, he majored in marketing.
"He was such an entrepreneur," said DeGregorio, who still has the Final Four ring with his name on it that Calipari sent him after the 1996 NCAA Tournament. "He was always a go-getter."
Jeff Szumigale, a bank executive in Erie and a teammate of Calipari's at Clarion, echoed those sentiments.
"I know it's an overused analogy," Szumigale said. "But that's the case with him. He remains a good guy."
Calipari has met all of the off-court expectations since Kentucky officials charged him with reinvigorating the blue-blood program following former coach Billy Gillespie's failed two-year stint.
Kentucky last season missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, but in the end, it was Gillispie's abrasive personality that grated big-time boosters and high-ranking school officials.
With Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart insisting "this is not just another coaching job," the Wildcats hired Calipari. Twenty-seven years after getting his first coaching job as a volunteer assistant at Kansas under Hall of Famer Larry Brown, Calipari is, for the first time, the head coach of a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) school.
During Kentucky's job search, Barnhart called Marcum at Marshall to ask some questions.
"After 20 minutes, (Barnhart) said to me, 'You haven't said anything about basketball,'" Marcum said. "With John, it's not about the basketball."
Calipari's staff includes John Robic, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of North Hills High School, and Orlando Antigua, a former Pitt player and assistant coach. Calipari understands the pressure of coaching a program with seven national titles and immense expectations.
"This is the commonwealth's team. It's the heartbeat," Calipari said. "In that regard, it's kind of humbling. From Paducah to Pikesville, they live and die with this thing. It's not life and death for me, but it is for some of the people."
Calipari always wanted to be a college basketball coach. While in college, he worked Howie Garfinkel's famed Five-Star Camp, making connections that included Rick Pitino.
Calipari would draw up inbounds plays in the dorm room after practice at Clarion.
"It was clear," Szumigale said, "that coaching was going to be his destiny."
Added Friedl, his former Moon teammate: "I saw his mother (Donna) the other day. She said that out of high school, he wanted to be a college basketball coach. Either North Carolina or Kentucky, that was his ultimate goal."
Calipari also was determined. At Clarion, he suffered a broken cheekbone, but stayed in the lineup by wearing a wrestler's headgear during games. He helped Clarion to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 1981 and led the team in assists in 1982.
After going to Kansas, he worked for three seasons from 1982-85 and met his wife, Ellen Higgins, a secretary in the athletics department who formerly had been married to Kansas and Los Angeles Rams football star Nolan Cromwell.
They stayed in a tiny apartment provided by a Kansas alum, being told he could afford either ESPN or furniture. Calipari opted for cable and they "sat on pillows."
"You take a job below you and prove to be indispensable," Calipari said. "There is nothing given to you. You have to earn it."
Calipari returned home to coach at Pitt, serving for three seasons as an assistant to Paul Evans and helping to recruit the heralded class of 1987 (Bobby Martin, Jason Mathews, Sean Miller, Darelle Porter and Brian Shorter), once named by Foxsports.com as one of the top 25 recruiting classes of all time.
Calipari remains one of the sport's elite recruiters — the life-blood of every program — because of his ability to relate to his players. While at Pitt, Calipari, then in his mid-20s, had a close relationship with the Panthers. It was all in good fun, even when a player jokingly complained about bad breath.
"He and (former Pitt swingman) Demetreus Gore used to needle each other," said Mark Coleman, an assistant with Calipari at Pitt from 1986-88. "He would make fun of Demetreus, and Demetreus would come back and call him 'coach Hal,' for halitosis."
Coleman, the head coach at Division II Western New Mexico, said Calipari has maintained that balance over the years.
"That's the biggest thing why he's a great recruiter," Coleman said. "He's personable. But when it's time to get serious, you can tell who's in charge. That's one of the reasons he's such a great coach. He's ready to go, but he does have a lighter side that probably a lot of people don't know about."
Finally, Calipari got his first head coaching job in 1988, at Massachusetts, a program with an Rating Percentage Index (RPI) of 295 out of 306, when he arrived. His base salary was $63,000.
Showing his business acumen, he opened Cal's Closet to sell Minutemen athletics gear, and he copyrighted the term "Refuse to Lose," earning six-figure royalties.
There were squirrels and birds in the rafters at UMass's gym. He turned the program around, but not without controversy.
Calipari was accused of signing academically questionable players, and under his watch, Camby received cash and gifts worth at least $40,000 from an agent.
In the aftermath, the school had to forfeit all four 1996 NCAA Tournament victories and was ordered to return about $150,000 in tournament money, as well as the Final Four trophy.
Calipari said in his biography, "Refuse to Lose," that the Camby revelations "came as a surprise."
Marcum defended his former coach.
"If individuals think he's not sincere, they don't know him and haven't dealt with him," Marcum said. "I can't speak highly enough about the guy."
From there, Calipari turned the New Jersey Nets from a 56-loss season to a berth in the NBA playoffs in two years, before winning 252 games in nine seasons at Memphis from 2000-09.
Now, he has a quick start on his latest "rebuilding" job, at a program coming off a 14-loss season, the second-worst in Kentucky history.Additional Information:
The Calipari file
Who: John Calipari
Occupation: University of Kentucky men's basketball coach
Education: Moon High School (1978), Clarion University (1982)
Family: Wife, Ellen. Children, Erin, 22; Megan, 19; Brad, 12.
Notable: Joins Mike Krzyzewski as the only two-time winner of the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award since its inception in 1987.
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