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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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Bell says Calipari has been open to all her questions and intrusions. She has told him he cannot recruit academically risky prospects, and she has backed him off at least two recruits who seemed like trouble. She vets every donation his foundation makes. She has taken charge of his game tickets, tracking his guests. It's no easy job. "Cal's probably got 100 William Wesleys scattered around," Wesley says. "He's more connected than me."

Two strikes. That's what Calipari has hanging over him, whenever his face flashes on TV, wherever he goes. The irony, of course, is that he yearned for Kentucky, needed a premier post where he'd have the tradition and the fan base and the money all behind him. You bet Calipari wants to make one more Final Four run, win a national title, have it all stick. "You can ask me anything," he told Todd in Chicago, "because I want this job." But now that he's got it, the spotlight shines ever brighter. Kentucky isn't UMass or Memphis; its basketball program is a 365-day object of scrutiny—"the absolute heartbeat," says Barnhart, of the state. Fall from here, and odds are you don't climb this high again.

And two years on, Calipari's still answering questions about Memphis. "We did everything we were supposed to do as a staff, as a school," he says. "Does it make me mad? Yeah. But I'm going to say this too: This stuff happened under my watch. You're responsible for everything. It's just hard to be held accountable for everything." But he also understands it, this two-strike count. "Winning at UMass? If it wasn't me, I'd probably think the guy had to do stuff to win there," Calipari says. "And then Memphis? How in the world did they become Number 1?" He raps the table with his knuckles once, twice. "He had to do something."

Strange: He's finally arrived at his dream job, but at times Calipari can seem like just another boomer dogged by a problematic past, waging the middle-ager's usual losing battles. His mother died in November, but he has had little time to grieve. His ailing dad is banging around alone in another city. His three kids are growing fast. One day he's nominated for a United Nations peace award for washing those kids' feet, the next his wife is scolding him for calling forward Terrence Jones "a selfish mother------" on TV.

If the Wildcats' spring ends early, there will be matchups Calipari won't watch. There are rivals he can't abide, and vice versa; even without being asked he gives you a list: Pitino, Pearl, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun. "Are there times that there's envy and jealousy in our profession—and in me? Yes," Calipari says, "but I don't want to feel that way, which is why I don't watch a lot of games."

Why, then, did he stop the chant that ugly night at Rupp? His gesture might have been as selfish as it was noble, because he knows those signs, that hate, were there for him in the past and likely will be in the future. "How would I want to be treated," Calipari says, "if they were saying that about me?"

So he does his good works, ignoring the speculation that it's all some kind of atonement. He goes to church daily, mornings mostly, and though he concedes that this is a sign of someone with a lot of sins to work out—"And I'm telling you, I'm a sinner like everybody else"—he's there to pray for friends and family, all the ailing strangers.

"I do not pray for myself," Calipari says. "I do not." Then his voice drops: Something about not coming clean on this feels wrong. "Well, I do a little bit," he says. Yes, Kentucky's coach admits, he will kneel in the quiet and whisper the words, "Bless me." He'll ask for mercy for the things he's done and hope to God that someone will hear.

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