Calipari has chance for vindication with title
By Andy Katz
Updated: April 6, 2008
SAN ANTONIO -- Talk with Memphis coach John Calipari these days, and you might be wondering if he is going to run for office.
His mother still dreams that he's going to be president, he said Sunday.
Well, Calipari's stump speeches certainly echo a number of candidates who have been trying to run for the highest office in the land.
You get a little Hillary Clinton from Calipari when he talks about how it takes a "village" at schools like UMass or Memphis -- ones that aren't in the BCS conferences -- to get to the Final Four.
He went John Edwards multiple times with his populist platform about how winning the national title could help boost the mood of a city that has "the highest poverty rate of any mid-South city with kids growing up that don't see the light of hope and no vision of what they can become."
He talked about stopping the cycles of the players on his team, saying that if some of his players had not found a home at Memphis, they might never have had the opportunity to receive an education.
He tried to help the media understand why the Memphis players feel they have been received unfair public perception after some of their legal troubles and team violations off the court. But Calipari also said that there would be a different image of the program if you spent time with the players.
He admitted that he recruits players who fit his school. If he were at Stanford, he would recruit players who could be successful at Stanford. But he's not, so he recruits to Memphis -- the same way he recruited to Massachusetts -- by finding players who can succeed at that particular school.
He even dug deep into his family tree, saying that his grandparents entered the country through Ellis Island and that his sister and he were the first in his family to receive a college education.
Calipari did say that he keeps the 15 "for sale" signs that were put in his front yard when the Tigers went to the NIT in his first three seasons there.
"I'm not a miracle worker," Calipari said. "I'm like my dad, grinding it out day by day. I don't throw kids under the bus right away. I'm about access and opportunity."
That is Calipari's public spin. But Calipari is driven a bit by the perception about him, too.
The 1996 UMass run to the Final Four has an asterisk next to it in the Final Four records book. The reason is that Marcus Camby admitted to taking money from an agent. The Final Four appearance has been "vacated" by the NCAA, and no banner hangs in the Mullins Center in Amherst.
That was the last time Calipari went to the Final Four. Until now. And with Saturday's 78-63 win over UCLA, Calipari is on the cusp of his first national title.
"When you're at a non-BCS school like UMass and Memphis, there's always some reason why you're there," Calipari said. "I hear it: 'Can't coach, no one wanted the players.' My biggest thing is that I'm not going to deal with any of that. We'll make all our statements on the court."
Bringing two schools off the traditional path, like UMass and Memphis, to the Final Four is what makes Calipari's run so unique, according to his former assistants.
"The other schools here like UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas have a birthright to be here, but not at those two places," said UTEP head coach Tony Barbee, a grad assistant on that UMass team. "He doesn't see road blocks."
"I think, personally, that he wants to show people that [UMass] wasn't a fluke, that 'I can do this thing again,'" said Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, an assistant to Calipari then and the successor to him at UMass. "John likes those challenges. The thing that makes him want to do more is when people tell him it's something he can't. He's not at Kentucky, not at one of the BCS schools."
Flint said what really has bothered Calipari is that the coach knew he had a national championship team in Memphis, yet the Tigers were continuously picked against after the second round of the tournament.
"He hates that," Flint said. "The guy has won 38 games. It's not like he just throws the ball out there. He's done a good job. Give him credit. He got a great player in Derrick Rose to put him over the top. He gets pissed off when there are articles out there that he's going to be outcoached.
"He knows what he's doing, but stuff like that ticks Cal off in a way that if he wins the national championship, y'all can finally give him credit. I think the guy is going to go in the Hall of Fame with those types of numbers right now. The numbers are phenomenal."
And that's one area where no spin is needed. The Tigers won 33 games in each of the past two seasons. With Saturday's semifinal, they set an NCAA record for most wins in a season with 38. They'll be looking to extend that record by one when they play Kansas on Monday night.
"I'm 49 years old and truthfully, I'm winding it down," Calipari said. "I've done this for 26 years at the highest level, 16 years as a Division I coach, four years in the NBA and more as an assistant at Kansas and Pitt. I don't want to do this for 30 more years. This thing is winding down for me."
And when it's all over, regardless of the rhetoric, Calipari will be judged by his long-term accomplishments. Some will buy it, some won't. He's always known that he's not going to get everyone's vote. But that's not going to stop him from trying.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.