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 '86, vowing to clean house, he fired everyone but Calipari. Says Evans, "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."
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 at Western New Mexico. "Norm and I didn't speak favorably of him, and once we heard the cheating stuff. ... People would question, How can you work with that [guy]? 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."
Another Calipari coup was Bobby Martin, a center out of Atlantic City. In December 1986, Martin declared he would sign with Rollie Massimino at Villanova; the next April he signed with Pitt. To this day, Martin says, Villanova fans 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. "I never had a conversation with Calipari about St. John's or somebody having cancer."
By the end of the 1987--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.
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. Some of it is media driven. Some of it is driven by other coaches through the media. ... 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 Yahoo! Sports 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 TV. When Calipari began his Twitter 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.
"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," 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."
SOME CALLED HIM LITTLE VINNIE, after his father. John worked his first connection at age nine, landing a prized gig as a batboy with the Moon High baseball team. Vincent Calipari played softball with the baseball coach, Ray Bosetti, so John got to ride the team bus with the big kids, be part of the games in the towns upriver from Pittsburgh. A big thrill it was, until the day in 1968 when racial strife roiled the area near Forgings Field, where Moon High was due to play predominantly black Coraopolis High. The team arrived to find the field besieged by angry black people, and after huddling a bit in the dugout, the players were rushed back onto the bus. Then the bus began to rock. Little Vinnie hit the floor with everyone else—"scared," he says, "to death."