John Calipari: The Man of the Hour 

John Calipari: The Man of the Hour

He’s always selling. Selling what a good salesman always sells -- himself. With a youthful appearance and an easy, natural charisma, John Vincent Calipari, at 41, is near the peak of the selling game. And he’s brought his game to Memphis, a town that knows a little bit about charisma. It also knows about con artists, having seen its share of both. That’s the Calipari conundrum: Is he smooth or is he slick? And, if he wins enough basketball games, will it even matter? After trying to get an interview with him for several weeks, I am prepared to dislike the man. As I cool my heels for 15 minutes in the lobby to the basketball office, I vow to not be taken in by this allegedly charming fellow. But I discover quickly what many high school recruits (or more precisely, their mothers) have found out -- the Calipari charm can be hard to resist. “Sorry for the delay,” the coach says as I’m escorted into his spacious office in the southwest corner of the new athletic building. “The hot water is off at my house and I’ve been running around all morning, so I thought I ought to take a shower.” He reaches into the mini-refrigerator for a bottle of water, but the cupboard is bare. Someone has raided his icebox. “Could someone get me a bottle of water?” Calipari wonders aloud. Momentarily the requested bottle arrives. Such is the magic of charisma. “I don’t know if I’ve been told no yet,” the coach says of his first six months in Memphis. “Now I haven’t gone crazy, but everywhere we’ve turned where we needed something to make the program better and put these players in a better situation, everybody has said yes.” The honeymoon between the new head basketball coach at the University of Memphis and the city at large is still in full swing. Although Calipari has been trying to keep a low profile (partly in deference to Rip Scherer, his football counterpart at the school) it seems he just can’t stay out of the news. Take, for instance, his house. When Calipari bought a $1.5 million house in the Galloway neighborhood, just across Poplar from the university campus, it caused heads to turn. Many thought the family would buy a home in Germantown or Collierville. “One of the reasons we moved close to the campus was for my own family,” explains Calipari, reputed to be a workaholic. He says the reason for buying such an expensive house has to do with the value of the house the family sold in New Jersey and the tax implications involved in such a transaction. The coach sounds embarrassed. “It’s more [house] than we need or want, and it’s in an area that is probably more exclusive than we are used to,” he says, stressing a theme that he will carry throughout the interview. The Caliparis are just ordinary folk. “When people meet me they come away thinking, ‘He’s a regular guy. He’s like you and me. He’s no different.’ If they meet my wife they would say, ‘I can see she’s from Oceola, Missouri, a town of 700 people. Their kids are well grounded.’ They understand that everything that we have is borrowed -- our house, cars, toys, clothes, everything is borrowed. We’ve always taught them that. I don’t think we are materialistic people.” His family doesn’t like the attention his job brings. “My wife doesn’t enjoy being in the public eye and neither do my children,” he says, “but they understand the job I have puts us there.” - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Ellen Calipari greets me at the door of the family’s home. She is warm and gracious. Although she doesn’t appear nervous, she obviously is not as comfortable with reporters as her husband. She confides that is has been a couple of years since she has been interviewed. We step down into the large sunken living room. The Caliparis’ youngest child, three-year -old Bradley, is watching a cartoon on the TV. Like the coach’s office, the house and grounds seem to be in a state of transition. Which of course they are. Ellen and the three Calipari children -- the two daughters, Erin Sue and Megan Rae, are at school -- stayed in New Jersey until the Spring semester ended. They are still settling into their new environs. She is not particularly happy with the house, which the couple bought before she saw it (“They e-mailed me pictures of it,” she says.). It is pastel pink with open spaces and lots of light coming through the numerous windows. Ellen isn’t sure what style it is, but says a friend described it as a Florida house. The description seems apt. “I had to warm up to it,” she says. “I’m more conservative. The style of it is very different. The color is different.” She, too, seems embarrassed by the grandness of the house. Ellen and John met when he was an assistant coach under Larry Brown at Kansas. She worked in the accounting office where John brought in receipts and invoices for the basketball team. It was not love at first sight. “I grew up with farmers and people who wore boots, and he came in with shoes with tassels on them,” she explains. “It took me a while to get used to that.” Ellen admits she was wary of the city slicker, but thought he was cute and agreed to go out with him. For their first date they planned to go to a baseball game in Kansas City, but the game was rained out and they went to a movie instead. Afterwards Ellen remembers they talked about how different they were. “He was a city guy, very outgoing,” she says. “I’m very laid-back. It doesn’t take much to entertain me. I don’t need to do much. I’m very down to earth. He’s very motivated, very driven. I guess that’s why we get along.” The man who is taking Memphis by storm was not a very romantic suitor. “In fact he would go a week without calling, wouldn’t even call. And when I called him, the line was always busy,” Ellen recalls. “Maybe that was a recruiting technique -- playing hard to get.” Despite their fundamental differences they continued to date and when John got a job at the University of Pittsburgh, she followed him. They soon were married. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - John Calipari sits on the edge of his chair looking me in the eye. His phone rings three or four times during the interview, but he doesn’t even glance at it. He may not be romantic, but for nearly an hour he makes me feel like the most important person in his life. The topic is his expectation for his first Tiger team. “I feel good about what we’re going to do here. But success is all relative. Part of it will be, what’s the initial success? What’s our success three or four years from now? I don’t know. The base will be set this year. Now, it may not be as high as we want it to be, but it will be set. “Good players will win despite coaching. They will win anyway,” he continues. “This team hasn’t won, so there’s something wrong. Are they bad kids? No absolutely not. They’re good kids. Nice guys. Good people. Do they have the talent to win? Yeah, they do. Well if they are good people and they have the talent to win, why aren’t they winning? It comes down to do they have the work habits, do they have the inner-toughness to win? No, not at this point. Do they understand the unity that it takes to win -- that there can’t be cliques? No.” Building team chemistry is an important part of the Calipari method. He does it in different ways. The basketball staff meets the entire team for breakfast throughout the year. The players are encouraged to do things together. “You don’t have to be best friends with everyone on the team, but you’ve got to care about that guy you’re going on the court with because if you don’t, you’re not going to cover his back and he’s not going to cover yours,” explains Memphis assistant Tony Barbee, who played for Calipari at the University of Massachusetts. Calipari was only 29 when he was hired as the head basketball coach at U Mass in 1988. He had only six years experience as a college assistant when he took the job. After going 10-18 his first year with the Minutemen, Calipari led them to post-season appearances seven consecutive years, including five straight NCAA appearances. His last team in 1996 went to the Final Four and was ranked number one in the nation for much of the year. UMass finished the season with a 35-2 record. Among their 35 wins was a hard-fought 64-61 victory over Larry Finch’s Tigers. “Its totally a different level of program that he is taking over here as opposed to U Mass,” Barbee says “You have everything built in here to be a Top-Twenty program year in and year out. You’ve got a great city, a great fan base, a great arena, brand-new practice facility that’s unlike any in the country, a great campus. You’ve got great offices, a great conference. Everything is in place to have a great program. “Now it goes back to the beginning, to the things he had to do at U Mass, teaching the players that losing is not an option. I don’t know how much losing hurt them over the last couple of seasons.” - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - While at the University of Massachusetts, Calipari copyrighted the phrase “Refuse to Lose.” It is the title of a book he wrote after the 1996 season with veteran sportswriter Dick Weiss. Calipari enforces his copyright vigorously. When Nebraska’s football team tried to use the phrase, he had his lawyers write them a letter. They could use it on their practice jerseys, but that was all. They couldn’t put it on anything for sale. He made the phrase more than a cliché at U Mass. It became a way of life, a mantra. “The biggest thing was not accepting failure, whether it was from drill-to-drill, from scrimmage-to-scrimmage, practice-to-practice, or game-to-game,” recalls Barbee of his four years at UMass. “Losing in anything was not an option.” Sometimes Calipari sounds almost sadistic when he talks about the lengths he goes in refusing to lose. “I told my staff, they’ll be a unit because they will all be trying to survive. You’ve got to lean on eight guys, you can’t lean on just the two next to you because somebody’s got to help them up. I don’t think that will be a problem a month after we start,” he says. Observers of Tiger basketball over the past 15 years know that the program -- even the successful teams -- lacked toughness. Not since the days of Sylvester Gray and Marvin Alexander has Memphis put a team on the floor that could really be called tough. Calipari plans on changing that. “I’m thinking about putting up a heavy bag and teaching them how to box and protect themselves,” he says. “Not that I want to create fights or anything like that, but I want their mental makeup to be: There is no thuggery going on. We’re going to play ball. I can protect myself. If you want to play that game, we can play that game. “I hate that game. This game is about synergy, it’s about finesse. It’s not about beating up the opponent. But if it’s out there, and you want to compete at the highest level, you’ve got to be able to play that way.” It is this combative side of Calipari that contributed, in part, to one of the few negative incidents in his career at U Mass. John Chaney is the coach of the Temple Owls. Before Calipari arrived at U Mass, Temple dominated the Atlantic 10 conference. The last five years Calipari was at U Mass, the Minutemen won the conference title. They became the only team to ever beat Temple three time in a season. A rivalry was born -- between the schools and between the coaches. In 1994, it turned ugly. “There was an incident two years before when we almost fought on the court,” Calipari says. “I told my players that I would never back down from another coach. I’m not backing down. I don’t ever want my players to see me back down. If we’ve got to fight, we’ve got to fight. I want my players to understand when they go out into the world there will be compromises, but you can never just be run over. If you accept it once you’re like railroad tracks, everybody’s going to see that they can run you over.” On February 13, 1994, after U Mass beat Temple on a last-second shot, Chaney rushed into the media room where Calipari was having his post-game press conference and began shouting. He threatened to kill Calipari and lunged at him, trying to choke him. The two were separated, but the entire incident was caught on videotape and for several days was a staple on national sports reports. “It was the most embarrassing time for me as a coach. I was embarrassed for the coaching profession,” Calipari says today. “It was embarrassing for me personally. It is a mark on John Chaney’s career that won’t go away. I said at the time he doesn’t deserve to be viewed that way.” Two weeks after the incident, UMass played Temple again, this time in Philadelphia. When the plane carrying the Minutemen arrived in Philly, a throng of reporters were waiting for Calipari. When a flight attendant offered to sneak the coach off the plane, he responded, “I’m not Tonya Harding-- I’m Nancy Kerrigan. I haven’t done anything wrong.” The story has a happy ending. After the season, Calipari was being roasted at a fund-raiser for American Diabetes Foundation. He invited Chaney to come roast him and the Temple coach accepted. And guess who Calipari lined up for his first game at the U of M? Temple. “He sent me a nice note when I took this job,” Calipari says. “I wrote back and said, ‘Should we be playing?’” Chaney agreed, Calipari called some friends at ESPN, and voila, Memphis opens its season on tonight at The Pyramid against John Chaney and the Temple Owls. Calipari wants it to be a statement game. And if the statement is for the Memphis fans, so be it. “I want everybody to understand that this is not going to be an easy road. This doesn’t change because I became coach. I don’t walk on water. I’m just a regular guy,” Calipari says. “But I want people to see our players fighting, playing like they’ve never played before, doing things people have never seen them do. Win or lose they leave the building saying ‘Now if this is the era we’ve gone to, I’m excited. We’ll win enough.’ It will be a hard game but a good game. The publicity from it -- how many people do you think will watch that game? People won’t remember the win or loss.” Again the conundrum. Did Calipari make nice with Chaney because it was the right thing to do or because it makes him look good? Or is it a little of both? And does it matter? - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - It matters to Ellen. She can’t bring herself to forgive Chaney for what he did to her husband, to her family, making her daughters cry, making them ask their dad if he was going to be killed when he went to Philly. It is yet another way in which the two are different. “He is a forgive-and-forget kind of person,” she says. “Things like that are more upsetting to me.” Although she say she is “very happy” to be in Memphis, where “people are nice,” she and her daughters are having to adjust to being in the spotlight again. “When were in the pros there wasn’t as much notoriety. At U Mass it started very gradually and it was fun. You felt like you were a part of things,” she recalls. “When he went to the Nets, we weren’t as much a part of things -- it was more of a business. Now it’s back to the notoriety. I look at things more as to how they affect my kids.” She knows that everyday decisions that are made by other Memphians without notice are a big deal for the Calipari family. “I think in the back of your mind you know they are statements,” she says. “I think I understand those statements. That’s why I make the choices I make.” Like the choice to send their daughters to public schools. “When it comes to schools, I think it goes back to the values I grew up with,” Ellen says. “I really didn’t want to do private schools. I feel like my kids are already in a situation where they are different enough.” The coach knows about making statements, too. “If I didn’t feel comfortable that my daughters could get a good education in a public school, they would be in a private school,” he says. “You can get what you need in the public school system here. So we felt comfortable. I was public-school educated; my wife was. We’ve both done all right. I work at a state institution. No disrespect for the private schools we looked into, but we felt comfortable with the public schools.” With a name like Calipari (there are none listed in the current Memphis phone book), the girls will be well known at their schools, especially after the season starts in November. Ellen says she talks to the teachers at the beginning of the school year and talks to her children about how to react when other kids discuss their dad. “I try to raise my kids with the values that they are no different than anyone else, because they’re not,” Ellen says. “But at the same time, they are. Because what they say can be misconstrued or can be seen differently because of John’s position.” Another adjustment for Ellen and her kids now that John is back to coaching at a college is his open door policy to his team -- for his home and his refrigerator. “The players know my house is their house. I told them not to feel uncomfortable opening a refrigerator, don’t feel uncomfortable making a sandwich, getting some chips. That’s the way I’ve always lived,” Calipari says. “They’re welcome to watch TV or do whatever they want. I’m not so far removed from it that I don’t remember college.” Tony Barbee says that’s the way Calipari has always been. “Sure he’s got money now. He was in the NBA and he’s secure, but he was like that before he had money,” Barbee says. “His house is accessible. That’s why he bought a house next to campus with a swimming pool and a tennis court, so his players can come over there anytime they want. That’s how he is. He’s never changed. When I was at UMass, we came over to the house, raided the refrigerator, raided the cabinets, took anything we wanted.” Of course having a house full of college kids in your home, raiding your refrigerator, can be a little disconcerting. But it’s just another aspect of being married to Coach Cal. “He wants them to feel comfortable. If I was sending my kid away to someone, I think I would like that,” Ellen says. “The only thing we tell our kids is, if you have anything that you need for a school lunch, if you have Halloween candy -- hide it!” - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Education is a big deal to John Calipari. He is proud of the fact that he and his sister were the first in their family to attend college. He can talk eloquently about why public colleges exist. When it comes to education, John Calipari is an egalitarian. Immediately upon arriving on campus, Calipari instituted the same class-attendance policy he had at U Mass. If anyone on the team misses class, the entire team runs at 5 a.m. the next day. “That happened once in the spring,” says assistant coach Steve Rockaforte. “It didn’t happen again. That was it.” Calipari also got laptop computers donated to the players so they could do homework on the road. And he moved study hall to the athletic building, so that the players would be closer to the coaches. Still, Calipari knows he can’t change the culture immediately. “It took eight years at U Mass. Eight years!” he says. “This is a process. It doesn’t happen over night.” In 1994, the U Mass basketball program came under fire when players’ grade point averages were leaked to a Boston paper. The story claimed that four members of the team were on academic probation with grade point averages of less than 2.0. The story was picked up by other publications. Sports Illustrated mentioned it under the caption “U Mess.” The players involved filed a lawsuit against the university because of the leak. The case was settled out of court. But Calipari remains unapologetic. “We never had a player flunk out of school. We never had a player academically ineligible. We had the highest team grade point average at U Mass since records have been kept,” he says. “We won more games obviously than any other team. We had players go to the NBA. Thirty-three players -- 80 percent -- graduated. We were never even questioned by the NCAA.” Following the 1996 Final Four season, just as Calipari was leaving U Mass to take the job of head coach, executive vice president, and chief of basketball operations for the New Jersey Nets, his star center Marcus Camby admitted taking money from an agent. A junior, Camby was leaving school early for the NBA. Seeing the coach and star player leaving just ahead of the NCAA posse did not set well with everyone. The NCAA ordered the U Mass Final four finish vacated. It was only the sixth time the organization had vacated a finish (Memphis State’s final four trip in 1985 was also wiped off the books). In addition U Mass had to return $151,000 in tournament money. Calipari has steadfastly denied knowing about Camby's involvement with agents. “I did not go to the NBA for that reason. I knew we didn’t do anything,” he says. “The NCAA doesn’t now, nor have they ever had a problem with me.” Still Calipari takes the Camby incident personally. “In the end, I must have failed at some point for him to do the things, or have his friends do the things they did,” the coach says. “You know the school was exonerated, I was exonerated. We did everything we could to stop something like that from happening. But when it happens you say, ‘Where did I fail?’ I just wish it didn’t happen to him, because I think it cost him $30 or $40 million in terms of endorsements and contract.” But it didn’t cost Calipari, who signed a five-year, $15 million contract with the Nets. Even though he was fired from New Jersey in 1999, the Nets will pay him through 2001. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - The contract Calipari signed with Memphis is peanuts compared to his NBA deal, but it is the most lavish in school history. The university is paying him $550,000 per year, in addition to incentive clauses worth $380,000. But the coach stands to make even more from endorsements. “I am only going to endorse three or four things. I’m not going to be selling chips or bread or paint or hot tubs, or anything like that,” Calipari says. “I owe it to my family. I am making a lot less money than I did in the NBA. That’s fine. I did it, I understood. This is an avenue for me to do well financially for my family. But I am going to do things that people in the community would respect.” He says he has some questions for anyone wanting him to endorse their product. The questions have to be answered to his satisfaction. “Where are you socially in this community? Are you active? Do you give back? What will you do for the university? What are you going to do for me now?” So far, Powertel, Jillian’s, Methodist Hospital, Bluff City Honda, and a new restaurant called Cal’s Championship Steaks have made the cut. He said he was wary about lending his name to the restaurant, owned by longtime Tiger supporter Pace Cooper. Calipari says he preferred it to be called “Coach’s Steakhouse.” He made the deal for two years and will re-evaluate after that. “I understand business because I majored in it. I understand that we need to sell and promote ourselves, the program, and the school,” Calipari says. “People are going to want me to endorse their products. I am going to be very limited in that regard.” Coach Cal is smart. Smart enough to know he is in a lucrative spot. “This position as head coach in this town is probably unique in that it does carry more weight that it would in any other town,” he says. “I want to make sure this position is used in a way to better the university, to better the community. If I do my job, yes we will win enough basketball games, but it will be that this position was used to help this university and this community.” - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - So we are back to the Calipari Conundrum. Is he just an ordinary guy who wants to do all the right things? Or does he do all the right things because he knows it makes for good PR? Is he really good, or too good to be true? Is he smooth or is he slick? Only time -- and basketball games -- will tell. (You can write Dennis Freeland at freeland@memphisflyer.com) [This article was originally published in the October issue of MEMPHIS magazine.]

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