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Calipari slumps at the counter by the window, his thousand-yard stare boring through the plate glass of a Lexington doughnut shop. In a day he will be 52 years old. Shivering passersby glance at him, some recognizing the king of the commonwealth, the caretaker of, as they bellow before every tip-off at Rupp, "the greatest tradition in college basketball!" Calipari waves.
It's the mid-morning lull, and the shop is dead: a rare quiet moment for one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. sports, an unsettling reminder of all that's questionable about college athletics. At the very least, the two programs Calipari resurrected were too easily infected by the plagues of circling agents and academic fraud. Yet Calipari has always won, so he has only kept rising, and now he sits atop one of the nation's premier programs. You can watch many college teams these days and pretend the game is pure. Not Kentucky. Not with Coach Cal.
Still, it's not just his past that makes Calipari so troubling. It's that while other coaches want to preserve some semblance of the game's traditional values, Calipari has always embraced the now—whether it be the Proposition 48 players he welcomed to UMass or the freshman exodus he celebrated last year as "the biggest day" in Kentucky hoops history. In 2002, Calipari famously tore up Dajuan Wagner's Memphis scholarship after his freshman year because he believed Wagner shouldn't pass up the NBA riches he would earn as a projected first-round draft pick. Ever since, any kid dreaming of a sneaker contract has thought, Now there's a coach who gets it.
"Whatever rules you play by, that man is going to be successful," says William (Worldwide Wes) Wesley, the renowned hoops fixer and Creative Artists Agency consultant on coaches. "You raise the basket to 12 feet? He's going to figure it out."
You could all but hear the harrumphing when, in January, retired Arizona coach Lute Olson called Calipari "very unprofessional" for luring Memphis's prime recruits to Kentucky. By traditional standards, that was unseemly, but the move didn't bother 33-year-old Josh Pastner, the former assistant to Calipari—and Olson—who succeeded Calipari as the Tigers' coach. "The right and principled thing to do," Pastner says, "was for those young men to follow Coach Calipari."
Pastner knows what Olson doesn't: Pastner recruited those players to Memphis by preaching the virtues of Calipari more than the virtues of the school. The dirty little truth is that the program, the academic institution, the tradition—even if it's, yes, Kentucky's—is second to the coach. "You have kids who were going to Memphis only because of me," Calipari says. "That's how it is."
If that's jarring, it shouldn't be. Critics carp that Calipari has spent a career proving that college ball isn't always what it seems. They hardly ever mention that the same can be said of the man.
The first time he saw two coaches try to destroy each other, Calipari laughed. It was 1980, late in his sophomore year, and he had just transferred to Division II Clarion (Pa.) State after washing out as a D-I guard at UNC-Wilmington. Now here he was at the raucous, packed Pennsylvania State Athletic Championship game, Clarion hosting Cheyney State. Unable to suit up until the following season, Calipari had kept busy sweeping the gym floor and reading books like The Power of Positive Thinking. He was sitting behind the Clarion bench when Cheyney State coach John Chaney, riding the officials hard just before halftime, flung his sport coat to the floor. Clarion coach Joe DeGregorio put his arms around a ref's shoulders, rasping, "Don't worry about him."
Chaney bulled forward. "What are you doing?" he screamed. "I'm half of this damn game!"
"Hey, John," DeGregorio said.