Memphis' Calipari seen as compassionate, vindictive at the same time
San Antonio Express-News
Time and again, when Memphis minister Eli Morris visits hospitals with his friend John Calipari, the layman will quickly take the hand of some afflicted soul and seek intercession.
"Eli, pray for us," the Tigers coach will ask. "We need it."
For those who love or hate Calipari, a polarizing figure even among the faithful who follow him, it is a supplication that carries particular resonance this week as Memphis challenges Texas A&M in a Sweet16 showdown at the Alamodome.
The coach arrives at once as saint and sinner, defined as much by his notorious past as his nascent present.
When it comes to Calipari, the perception persists that getting to basketball heaven means putting up with plenty of hell.
"Unfortunately, with some things, perception becomes reality," Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy said Tuesday. "But what John is perceived to be is certainly nothing close to the reality of what John is."
It has been nearly four years since alcoholism and poor judgment cost Eustachy his position at Iowa State. But he clearly recalls the pain and isolation he felt after embarrassing photographs surfaced showing him partying with college students in Missouri.
"The phone wasn't ringing," said Eustachy, the former national coach of the year. "It was a bad time for me."
Then one day, the phone rang. Calipari, a distant acquaintance, was on the line.
"He reached out to me for no reason whatsoever," Eustachy said. "I didn't even know him well, but he is as caring a person as I've ever met, in or out of basketball."
It's part of the enigma of a man whose tale is maddeningly layered and complicated. Seen on game days in tailored suits and silk ties, Calipari has been known to roll up his sleeves on off days and work without fanfare to serve the needy.
Often profane and combative on the court, friends describe him as fiercely private and compassionate off it.
Defined publicly for brushes with scandal and controversy, from stints with the University of Massachusetts to the NBA's New Jersey Nets to his seven-year tenure at Memphis, he is identified away from the spotlight as unfailingly loyal and decent.
Many of his practices are populated with more than players and staff. FedEx officials, former athletes, other coaches, boosters big and small — all have wandered across Calipari's landscape at his invitation.
It's a collection, as a Memphis columnist described it, "of priests and rogues."
Following the Conference USA tournament title game, the coach draped an arm around Ken Bennett, the executive director of Streets Ministries in Memphis, and asked him to find David Stewart, a 77-year-old fan. He wanted the longtime supporter, suffering from terminal cancer, in the team picture.
"When it rises from where it was to where it is now," said Derek Kellogg, a Tigers assistant and former Calipari player, "you want to bring some of the people with you who were a part of it."
Others were summoned from the stands, tucked among grinning players, posing with the trophy as if each had made a key jumper.
"Let me tell you," Eustachy said, "he treats the guy that sweeps his floor the way he treats the president of Memphis. There's no pecking order with John."
There are others, of course, who see a different side. The coach, 48, is viewed by detractors as a vindictive manipulator, prone to divide his world into those who are for or against him.
He has carried on well-publicized feuds with reporters and fellow coaches.
"Look, I don't think I have all the answers," Calipari said last weekend in New Orleans. "I don't even know when the bus leaves; they come and get me.
"I just try to go out there and coach my team when the game starts."
And, when that occurs, Eustachy stresses there's something else often overshadowed.
"John is a very underrated coach," he said.
"I'm going to beat his ass one day, but I really don't know when it's going to happen, because he's as good as there is out there."