There was a time, early on, when it seemed easy to peg John Calipari. Back in the late '80s he was just another pretty face, one more Pat Riley clone with the slick hair and dazzling patter, the just-so suits and shoes. Talent flocked to him, but he radiated a knockoff's flimsiness: too much talk and an ambition about as subtle as sharkskin. Opposing recruiters wanted to beat him bloody. Opposing coaches tried to sabotage his hiring. Omens? His first game as a head coach, the scoreboard caught fire. You just didn't figure Calipari for the long haul.
These days, of course, he is basketball's great survivor, the ever-moving (Gas up the private jet!), ever-hustling (four McDonald's All-Americans for 2011!), ever-tweeting (1.1 million followers!) head coach of the University of Kentucky. And while his eight-year, $31.7 million contract—the richest in the college game—is the most obvious measure of his success, it's hardly the most telling. Like the sharpest scavenger after a storm, Calipari has prospered more than any other coach in college basketball's broken system, gathering up top recruits, winning 30 games a season and then happily waving his one-and-done players goodbye. Last spring an unprecedented five Wildcats, four of them freshmen, went in the first round of the NBA draft. And if this season has been a relative struggle, most of Kentucky's rivals would gladly take a morning after that includes a 22--8 record, a No. 15 ranking, a 34-game home winning streak and more than enough talent to play deep into March.
"Regardless of what John tells you, he's got this team right," LSU coach Trent Johnson said after the Wildcats gave the Tigers what he called "a good old-fashioned ass-whipping" at Rupp Arena on Jan. 15. "They're a handful."
Coach Cal may get his teams "right" season after season, but the biggest win of his 22-year career surely came during three hours in a Chicago hotel suite in March 2009, when he persuaded Kentucky's president, Lee T. Todd Jr., to hire him even as the NCAA was investigating alleged violations by Calipari's program at Memphis. And despite a news drip about possible violations in Lexington since then (a fruitless NCAA probe into former guard Eric Bledsoe's high school transcript; a Chicago Sun-Times report last August that the father of recruit Anthony Davis got $200,000 for his son to commit to the Wildcats, an allegation that both dad and school deny), the coach's stature within the administration has only grown. To have Todd—who was so alarmed by what he calls the "smoke" surrounding Calipari that he wouldn't consider him when the job first opened in 2007—say in February that the only coach to preside over two Final Four runs vacated by the NCAA (at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008) now gives him "a good, wholesome feeling," well, that too can be considered a kick-ass performance.
"I could be at risk of saying he did a job on me [in Chicago], but it's proved to be a real job, a long-lasting job," Todd says. "I've seen the proof. I've seen him operate."
Calipari's detractors delight in noting that he has always left town one step ahead of the sheriff, even if he was cleared by the NCAA of any personal culpability in the UMass and Memphis messes. And what do the message-board cynics make of his $1 million donation last June to Streets Ministries of Memphis, or his washing of poor kids' feet in Port-au-Prince and Detroit last year, or his organizing a January 2010 telethon that raised $1.3 million for Haiti's earthquake victims? They cite ESPN analyst Bob Knight, who in December 2009 called Calipari the embodiment of the sport's ills. "Integrity is really lacking [in college basketball]," Knight said in a speech in Indianapolis. "We've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation, and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that."
Never mind that the General, no pillar of rectitude himself, had his facts wrong: Only Memphis went on probation. Knight is the bulldog eyeing the cat as it lands, again, on its feet, and he's not the only one perplexed. Calipari once declared that rather than competition or education, "everything in this game is marketing," and it's a constant struggle for rivals and the hoops commentariat to decide where his sell begins and ends. "John's out there," says Larry Brown, one of his coaching mentors. "The way he dresses, the way he talks nonstop. A lot of people look at that shtick and say, That guy is not real."
Calipari's spin is so notorious—and the smoke swirling around him so thick—that few noticed a recent gesture of sportsmanship that would have burnished any other coach's reputation. On Feb. 8, during a pulverizing win over Tennessee at Rupp Arena, Wildcats fans chanted, Bruce You Cheat-ed! at Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl, who was back after an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA investigators about recruiting violations. Calipari and Pearl despise each other, but Calipari whirled on the students, glared and shook his head. "Stop!" he said, waving his arms. "There's no place for that here." The chant died, yet no laudatory ink flowed Calipari's way.
Could it be that the slickness that has lifted him to the top of his profession also allows nothing good to stick? "We just roll out the balls here," Calipari will say, but it's not humility. It's hurt. His rep as a recruiter and all the hand-wringing about one-and-dones have made it easy to ignore the fact that year in and year out, he gets players—especially those with one eye fixed on the mock-draft boards—to sacrifice their individual games for the team. And with six former assistants now Division I head coaches, Calipari's coaching tree is second only to that of Arizona State's Herb Sendek.
"People try to figure out, Why's he do something? There's an ulterior motive," Calipari says. "They're obsessed. And if you're obsessed, you lose. The great news is, I'm not obsessed with them."