Asked why Pitino would say that, Calipari nearly chokes and says, "I would just tell you: I respect him, respect what he's done over his career." Then he yells in a voice thick with sarcasm, "And thank him for all the help he's given me over my career!"
Evans, the Pitt coach, remembers that it was Pitino—not Carnesecca—who brought up the rumor about Calipari and the cancer allegation at the coaches' meeting in '86. And Nathan, the Minutemen's booster, and others have told Calipari for years that Pitino's story of helping him get the UMass job and contributing to his salary is a myth. Instead, Nathan says, the search committee narrowed the pool to Shyatt and Calipari, voted and then threw the final decision to David Bischoff, dean of the school of physical education. "The vote was, I believe, three to two in favor of Larry Shyatt," Nathan says. "And I can tell you that Rick Pitino was not one of the two people who voted for John Calipari."
Wong says of Pitino's version, "That's not my recollection." Bischoff says that he never heard of a budget shortfall. McInerney died last May. Told of the search committee's comments, Pitino says he remembers no such vote and insists, "I didn't care who they hired, Calipari or Shyatt. The guy I would've loved to see was Stu Jackson."
Regardless, Pitino says, "It was really the worst job in college basketball at the time." And though he repeats that "I really don't know the guy," he says that in Amherst, Calipari did one of the three best program-building jobs in college history.
UMass hadn't made the NCAA tournament since 1962. Flint, then an assistant at Coppin State in Baltimore, heard plenty of warnings when he was considering a job with Calipari in 1989. "He was like the devil," Flint says. "Guys were like, You're going to be on probation." But what Frank Marino, a Five-Star coaching legend, said carried more weight. "Put five guys in a pitch-black room where nobody knows where the doors are and say, 'Find a way out,' " Marino told Flint. "John Calipari's going to get out first. That's why you go with him."
Within four years Calipari had made the Minutemen a force in the Atlantic 10, then a national power that achieved a No. 1 ranking and a trip to the 1996 Final Four, where they lost to, yes, Pitino's Kentucky team. Nearly 80% of Calipari's UMass players graduated.
The Final Four run was, of course, later vacated—and UMass was forced to give back the $151,000 it earned in postseason play—when All-America center Marcus Camby admitted to having accepted at least $28,000 in money, jewelry, prostitutes' services and car rentals from two sports agents while in school. Camby has maintained that Calipari never knew anything about it. Thomas Yeager, the chair of the NCAA infractions committee, agreed. "There is no doubt that you were unaware of the violations involving student-athlete Camby," Yeager wrote in a letter to Calipari dated June 8, 2004. "In a sense, you were an 'innocent victim' in this."
Calipari's detractors may wince at the word innocent, just as many dismiss his acts of generosity as "complicated." There are myriad stories of his sudden plane flights to appear at christenings or funerals of UMass personnel, or his loyalty to former assistants, players and staffers. Even Coleman, who doesn't call Calipari a friend, considers Calipari's reference letter "very instrumental" in landing him the head job at Drew University. Though Calipari coached Shorter for only one year, he welcomed his former player to UMass workouts, offered him a tryout with the Nets and encouraged him to return to Pitt to finish his studies. When Shorter graduated in December, at age 42, Calipari called to congratulate him.
Says Memphis associate AD Bob Winn, "Somebody would just send a letter or call and say, 'Do you know what your coach did? He showed up at six in the morning in the room of my dad, who's dying of cancer, and sat with him for several hours.' Things like that, John felt deeply about."
Plenty of coaches pay homage to the profession's elder statesmen, and it often provides a sweet photo op. Calipari paid to fly in Buzz Ridl's widow, Betty, not just to the 1996 Final Four but also to Memphis's appearance in the 2002 NIT title game and its Final Four run in '08. Maybe he was just looking for good ink—Calipari had known Ridl for just a month before he died, in 1995—but he put Betty up in his home when he was with the Nets and has kept in close touch with her over the last 15 years with visits, calls and personal notes. "I have a fistful, a wad: 'Thinking of you,' 'Pray for you every day,' 'We need you to cheer hard,' " says Betty's daughter, Betsy Ridl Baun.