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 two years ago, at age 42, Calipari called to congratulate him.
Says Memphis associate AD Bob Winn, "Somebody would 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 hours.' Things like that, John felt deeply about."
As those close to Calipari say, the years have helped make him more open, less self-centered. "Cal's evolved," Brown says. Some old enemies have become friends. After their wars ended in the Atlantic 10, Calipari cultivated Chaney, picking his brain about his zone defense, inviting him to his annual coaches' retreat. "I admire him," Chaney says, "and he knows that."
Not even the second blot on Calipari's record—the 2007--08 season vacated by Memphis because someone other than guard Derrick Rose reportedly took Rose's one passing SAT test in high school—bothers Chaney. (Rose denies any wrongdoing.) But how can a coach not know about his star recruit's SAT? How could Calipari, renowned for being so detail oriented, twice be so in the dark? "If John said he didn't know, that's good enough for me," Chaney says. "I can see how some of these things can get past."
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 behind him. "You can ask me anything," he told Todd in Chicago, "because I want this job." But now that he's got it, and now that he has a national title, 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 UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart, of the state. The school has been on probation in every decade for the last 60 years, and its football program began serving a three-year sentence in 2002, just after Todd took over as president. Todd vowed that under his watch, it wouldn't happen again.
Yet two years after the Memphis scandal, Calipari was still answering questions. "We did everything we were supposed to do," 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 2010, but he had little time to grieve. 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 motherf-----" on TV.
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 asks, "if they were saying that about me?"