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In the spring of 1988, during his first season coaching the New York Knicks, Rick Pitino made an emergency trip to his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. Pitino was on the search committee for a new UMass basketball coach, and he'd learned that athletic director Frank McInerney had soured at the last minute on the consensus choice—a 29-year-old Pittsburgh assistant named John Calipari—after hearing concerns about Calipari from a prominent coach. "Look, people have enemies in this game," Pitino says he told the AD. "You can't change your mind because one coach calls and says these things. That means he's worried. If he's worried about this guy, then that's a good thing."
Debate ensued. Finally, Pitino recalls, McInerney came around. "O.K., I'll go with Calipari," he said, "but we have one problem, Rick. I offered him a $63,000 salary. We only have [$58,000]. If you'll write a check for $5,000, we'll stick with our original decision."
"Fine, I'll send it to you," said Pitino.
"No," said McInerney, whose department was strapped for cash. "I have to have it now." These days Pitino can't help but laugh as he tells the story. "The guy wouldn't let me out of the meeting until I wrote the check!"
Funny how the world works. More than two decades later Calipari is the highest-paid coach in college basketball, freshly hired at Kentucky for eight years and $31.65 million, and tasked with restoring its championship tradition. Along with a reputation that's equal parts outlier, outsider and outlaw, Calipari comes in with enormous expectations, a high-flying offense (the dribble-drive motion) and a powerhouse freshman class, led by point guard John Wall, the country's top recruit.
The response among Kentucky fans, whose team hasn't reached the NCAA tournament's second weekend since 2005, has been seismic. Wildcats backers filled nearly 500 tents camping out for as many as three days just to snag tickets for the first practice, which sold out 23,500-seat Rupp Arena. For the past seven months, in the wake of Billy Gillispie's two-year reign of error, Calipari has crisscrossed the commonwealth, spreading the message of change like a hybrid of Barack Obama and professor Harold Hill. All of which has been carefully monitored down the road in Louisville by Pitino, the coach who rescued Kentucky from the depths of probation in the 1990s, led the school to the 1996 national title and returned (to the everlasting consternation of Wildcats fans) to take over the archrival Cardinals in 2001.
When the Kentucky job came open last March, Pitino campaigned publicly for the candidacies of Oklahoma State's Travis Ford and Arkansas's John Pelphrey, two coaches who had played for Pitino in Lexington. But it was impossible to escape another conclusion, one that goes back to what Pitino said in that UMass conference room in 1988: If there was one coach in America who worried Pitino the most, it was John Calipari.
On June 2, the night before Calipari was to leave for a weeklong trip to China, a post on his Twitter page said that he planned to attend Mass the next day at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Usually Calipari goes to Mass early in the morning, but this time he arrived at noon. On his way out afterward, a man in a Kentucky shirt stopped him. "I just wanted to wish you well in China," he told the coach. Calipari was flabbergasted—and a little concerned. "How did he know I was coming at noon?" he asks. "He had to have waited there all morning. That's when I had to remind everybody that I have a huge dog in our backyard."
Calipari is clearly enjoying his outsized popularity, signing thousands of copies of his new book, Bounce Back, all across Kentucky. But it doesn't take Alan Greenspan to know that Wildcats supporters give new meaning to the term irrational exuberance, with the impatience to match. Asked how long the Big Blue faithful will give him to win big, Calipari doesn't hesitate. "This year," he said during the first week of practice. "But it's a new team, a new coaching staff, a new style. All of it's different."
Well, not all of it. When junior forward Patrick Patterson passed up the NBA draft and returned to Lexington, Calipari asked him why. Simple, Patterson replied. He had never played in the NCAA tournament; he was on track to graduate with a communications degree in three years; and he knew that at 6'9" his NBA future depends on his ability to develop a floor game—the kind that's the hallmark of Calipari's dribble-drive motion attack. "He wants all his players to be able to handle the ball like a point guard," says Patterson. "I'm trying to adjust from posting up to facing up."