Calipari refuses to change his approach
By Mark Blaudschun, Boston Globe Staff
SAN ANTONIO -- John Calipari was multitasking.
As he looked at tapes of Texas A&M, he had the cellphone in his ear, talking to a reporter about his itinerary for the next few days.
"Two-hour plane ride, we'll probably leave around 4, which should get us there at 6. Look at the size. I've got to figure out what happens if we get into foul trouble with these guys. This is going to be a different challenge."
And that was the key word for Coach Cal, who is once again on a roll with a University of Memphis basketball team that has ambitions of a national championship, a goal that wasn't realistic when Calipari arrived in 2000.
But that is what Calipari does. He fixes things. Some people might not like how he does it, but things get fixed. He did it when he arrived at the University of Massachusetts 19 years ago and he has done it in a different way at Memphis, which will be here for tomorrow night's NCAA South Regional semifinal against Texas A&M.
The other acts in the four-team production are No. 1 seed Ohio State and No. 5 seed Tennessee. But those are problems for another day, even if that day may be as soon as Friday.
For now, Calipari is focused on the moment. The energy flows out of him, much the way it did when he was the hotshot assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh who wanted to make a name for himself when he got his first head coaching job at UMass in 1988, a boy wonder at 29 who took over what may have been the worst program in Division 1.
Cal worked out of an office at Curry Hicks Cage, the cozy home of the Minutemen before the more spacious Mullins Center opened Feb. 4, 1993, the middle of Calipari's eight-year tenure in Amherst. "Any team, any time, any place" was the motto he used as he rebuilt a program at a university so financially strapped that, as a state employee, he took a two-week unpaid furlough.
But he knew then, just as he knows now. He had a plan. He structured his contract so that some of it was based on gate receipts for games that Calipari would schedule against elite teams.
At first, it seemed foolhardy. But then the wins started to come, and so did the people. At Amherst, using lunch-bucket guys such as Lou Roe and Derek Kellogg (who has been on Calipari's staff at Memphis for seven seasons), the Minutemen got better and better. They also got better players such as Marcus Camby, and in 1996 they approached the pinnacle with a 35-2 record and a Final Four appearance.
But there was a cost. There always is with Cal's teams, say the critics. And this time it was an NCAA investigation. Violations were discovered, and the sanctions included the vacating of UMass's Final Four appearance .
Calipari heard the talk then and he hears it now, and he shrugs. He defends his team and his players. They graduate, he says (12 of 15 seniors that have played for him at Memphis got degrees), they do their job.
"My job is to coach them," says Calipari. "I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But I know what has to be done. I get people to help me out, academics, compliance. I put them in charge of those areas. What I do is coach."
By any standards, he coaches well. After a four-year stint in the NBA -- including two-plus seasons coaching the New Jersey Nets -- in which he made a lot of money and learned a lot about himself, Calipari came to Memphis in 2000 and took over a program that had been tainted by scandal and a zero graduation rate.
It was in the "also-ran" heap of college programs. It was a program of noninterest.
"Memphis is interesting because it's more like a pro town than a college town," Calipari says. "It's not like Lexington or Storrs or Tucson or 20 other places, where if you play a game people will come because there is simply a game. We've got to give them something."
Calipari has given them something on a steady basis for seven seasons, during which the team's average record has been 28-6. This year's edition is a sizzling 32-3 and has won 24 straight games, the longest streak in Division 1.
Calipari is well-paid for what he does; according to a survey of coaches' salaries in USA Today, he makes close to $1.3 million a year.
He also has flirted with the idea of taking his show to where he has never been -- a major conference.
Such a dream was a goal nearly 20 years ago when he began the trip, and it may still ultimately be a goal, although as he gets older, quality of life factors in as much as anything.
Calipari turned 48 last month and has an artificial hip. He has three children: Erin, 19, who is in college (UMass), Megan, 17, who is heading for college, and 10-year-old Bradley. He has slowed a little bit, but not much.
He is comfortable in Memphis, but that may not stop him from flirting with a higher-profile program. Last year, it was North Carolina State, which would have created an interesting trio of coaching stars on Tobacco Road with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Roy Williams at North Carolina.
This year, the rumor du jour was that Tubby Smith was leaving Kentucky.
"I read an Internet report which said that Tubby was out and that John was in," said Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson. "It's crazy what's out there. But it's something you just have to deal with."
Calipari is now focused again. He must find a way to beat the Aggies. He must find a miracle cure for his leading scorer, guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who went down with a severely sprained ankle in Sunday's second-round win over Nevada.
"If he can play, he's going to play," said Calipari. "There ain't no question about that."
But Calipari knows that treatment can only do so much. Time is the best cure, and he doesn't have any right now.
With that, Calipari is back doing what he says he does best -- coaching, with what he has and where he's at.
And, at least right now, that's good enough.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.