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TOO SLICK, TOO LOUD, TOO SUCCESSFUL WHY JOHN CALIPARI CAN'T CATCH A BREAK
S.L. Price
March 14, 2011
The NCAA hasn't held him accountable for any major violation, and dark rumors about his recruiting methods have never stuck. Still, no matter what good the Kentucky coach does—visiting the sick, helping at-risk kids—he's assumed to have an ulterior motive
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March 14, 2011

Too Slick, Too Loud, Too Successful Why John Calipari Can't Catch A Break

The NCAA hasn't held him accountable for any major violation, and dark rumors about his recruiting methods have never stuck. Still, no matter what good the Kentucky coach does—visiting the sick, helping at-risk kids—he's assumed to have an ulterior motive

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Not exactly. The year before, Calipari had blown into Pitt fresh from three years at Kansas, where he'd grown from an unpaid scrub doling out peas and carrots to players in the dining hall to a valued staffer. Pitt had risen fast under coach Roy Chipman, and not long after Calipari's arrival as a top assistant the program's reputation began to buckle. In the fall of 1985 two former recruits alleged they had received payoff offers—from a booster and another assistant coach—and then Chipman resigned in midseason. When Paul Evans arrived from Navy in 1986, vowing to clean house, he fired everyone but Calipari. "When I talked to John, he said he wasn't happy doing it the way they were doing it previously—and wanted to do it the right way," Evans says. "That's why I gave him a shot."

It didn't hurt that, under Chipman, Calipari had steered one of the nation's top players, forward Brian Shorter of Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High, out of the city—not to mention away from Temple and Chaney—and to Virginia's Oak Hill Academy for his senior year. With Shorter all but sewn up when Evans arrived, Calipari was on a roll, and hardly shy about letting his new colleagues, assistants Mark Coleman and Norm Law, know it.

"We thought Cal big-timed us," says Coleman, now the coach at Western New Mexico. "Norm and I didn't speak favorably of him, and once we heard the cheating stuff, we had no idea. People would question, How can you work with that scumbag? But it was usually guys who had lost the recruiting war to him. Cal can talk to anyone; he can think you're the worst person in the world, and he'll make you feel you're the greatest. And he found the person most responsible for a kid—the parent, the AAU coach or the high school coach—better than anybody I've seen."

Calipari also worked the phone like a maestro, stroking the man Shorter called his "mentor," Simon Gratz assistant Bob Montgomery; keeping Oak Hill coach Steve Smith in the loop; and making sure Shorter was always pointing toward Pitt. "He taught me: If you have to stay on the phone three hours and hear the same story 15 times, that's what you do," Coleman says.

Another Calipari coup was Bobby Martin, a 6'9" center out of Atlantic City. In December 1986 he declared he was signing with Rollie Massimino at Villanova; the following April he changed his mind to sign with Pitt. To this day, Martin says, Villanova fans and even his best friend ask, What did you get paid? "The only thing I got paid," Martin says, laughing, "is no attention." He is often mentioned as the St. John's recruit Calipari tried to steal away—"Coach Lou having cancer?" Martin says. "Cal didn't tell me that. It never happened"—as is center Marvin Branch, who chose Kansas over Pitt in '87. "It's not true," says Branch, now a social worker living in Oskaloosa, Kans. "I never had a conversation with Calipari about St. John's or somebody having cancer."

By the end of the '87--88 season, Coleman says, "John wanted to move ahead. It was time for him to have a head-coaching job in Division I, and if he needed to step on someone's toes to get [there], he would do it. Unethical? Nothing that I ever saw. Cheating? Nothing that I saw or knew about. At times I envied him. He's the best recruiter, by far, of anyone in college coaching, and he's winning."

Glenn Wong, then head of the UMass sports management department and a member of the committee charged with vetting Calipari in 1988, called Massimino then. Wong played for Massimino in high school and loves the man. But as much as Massimino disliked Calipari, Wong says, he could give Wong no reason for UMass to pass on him. Contacted at his current coaching post, at Florida's Northwood University, Massimino says he thinks Calipari does "a good job" and, though he broke "a certain unwritten rule" by poaching Martin, didn't violate any NCAA bylaws. Asked if it's fair to say he has no problem with Calipari, Massimino raises his voice. "Don't put words in my mouth!" he says. "Everyone has different conceptions. He's not in my circle of friends. He's another coach: That's it."

There are moments, small ones, when Calipari can shrug off the way he's perceived by his peers. "I know I'm not a saint," he says, "but I'm not the guy I'm made out to be by others. Some of it is media driven. Some of it is driven by other coaches through the media: Drill this guy, he's going too fast, he can't be that good. And I say: Have at it. Hopefully I've done things the right way and treated people right."

But Calipari also is energized by friction, cultivates it at times like a combustible fuel. He knows he looked small when, as the Nets' coach in 1997, he called a beat writer "a f------ Mexican idiot." But he's still not above calling editors to savage writers he dislikes, and he takes a child's delight in zinging ESPN columnist Pat Forde—co-author of a book with Pitino, Calipari is quick to say—who has detailed Calipari's perceived misdeeds in print and on television. Even Calipari's 24-year-old daughter, Erin, teed off on Forde on Facebook. Twitter is a new and mostly benign toy, but when Calipari began his account at Kentucky in 2009, he wanted to institute Bash Wednesday, a weekly smackdown of adversaries large and small. He was dissuaded, but he still grins over the idea. He likes revenge.

"There are times I get mad and want to strangle somebody, and then I go to Mass and say, Stop me from having this feeling that I want to absolutely punch this guy in the face," Calipari says. "I'm from Pittsburgh. You come at me? I come at you twice. You hurt one of mine? I'm burning your village."

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