It’s easy to resent John Calipari. So young and successful, so rich and self-assured, so stylish and well-connected.
Indeed, many of Calipari’s colleagues do resent his meteoric rise as the University of Massachusetts’s basketball coach. They question his recruiting tactics, gosspip about his future and demean his players’ academic credentials.
Calipari, whose top-ranked and undefeated Minutemen beat Virginia Tech on Saturday, ignores the innuendo. More than anyone, he knows what it’s taken for him, and Massachusetts, to progress this far.
He knows what it’s like to sweep the gym floor and what it’s like to lose by 19 points to Division II Florida Tech. He knows the price of success includes scrutiny and suspicion.
“We run a clean program,” he says. “We do things by the book and we try to teach our players life skills, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Life skills. Calipari, 36, learned them early as the son of an airline baggage handler in suburban Pittsburgh. His father earned a modest salary, and his mother worked in the school cafeteria to earn extra money. The house, at 888 Beaver Grade Road in Moon, Pa., was crowded with Calipari, his two older sisters and their parents.
So Calipari learned to be resourceful, especially when it came to his first love - basketball.
He was a point guard and a gym rat. Lock the doors after practice, and Calipari would pick the locks with his comb. Or, he’d leave a window open. Lord knows he was skinny enough to slither through the narrowest of openings.
As a college player, he transferred from North Carolina-Wilmington to Clarion (Pa.) State to earn more playing time. During the summers he talked his way into a job at the prestigious Five Star camp, where he schmoozed Howie Garfinkel, the camp’s owner and a power broker of unrivaled influence.
Calipari left Clarion State with a season’s eligibility remaining, marketing degree (remember that concept) in hand, to accept a part-time assistant coaching position at Kansas, where he swept floors, spooned out training table food and absorbed the teachings of Ted Owens.
Then it was off to Vermont for a year as recruiting coordinator, then back to Kansas to work under Larry Brown, then to Pittsburgh under Paul Evans.
So don’t be telling John Calipari that he rode the gravy train to the top. Sure, he’s an unapologetic self-promoter and clothes horse. He also works his butt off, and plenty of folks have noticed.
On the day his Kansas team was to play Oklahoma for the 1988 national championship, Brown called Massachusetts to recommend his former assistant for the school’s head-coaching vacancy.
“He was ready,” says Brown, now coaching the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. “I wouldn’t have been hesitant to tell him he wasn’t ready. But he was ready. He loves the game. He loves the kids he coaches. He respects the people he works with. He’s got it all.”
Massachusetts did not have it all. The Minutemen had posted 10 consecutive losing seasons before Calipari arrived in 1988. Squirrels and birds roamed the rafters of Curry Hicks Cage, the program’s antiquated arena. The phones in the basketball office were rotary dial.
Yes, Julius Erving played at UMass, but that was in 1971 and ‘72, a lifetime ago in the evolution of big-time, cutthroat college basketball. If Calipari, then 20 years old, was going to win at UMass, smack dab in Big East country, he was going to have to relentlessly sell hemself, the program and the school.
Remember that marketing degree?
Armed with the blueprints for a new arena and taking advantage of the school’s liberal admissions policies, Calipari and his staff, led by Bill Bayno, now head coach at Nevada-Las Vegas, scoured the northeast corridor and landed players such as Jim McCoy from Pittsburgh and Harper Williams from Bridgeport, Conn.
After a 10-18 finish in Calipari’s rookie season, which included a 106-87 loss to Florida Tech, the Minutemen improved to 17-14 and 20-13, earning NIT bids both seasons. Following that second NIT appearance in 1991, Calipari landed his breakthrough recruiting class, which included forward Lou Roe of Atlantic City, N.J., and guard Derek Kellogg of Springfield, Mass.
During the next four seasons, Roe and Kellogg led the Minutemen, whose only previous NCAA Tournament appearance was in 1962, to four consecutive NCAA bids and 111 victories. Massachusetts made the Sweet 16 in 1992 and came within a game of last season’s Final Four, losing in the East Regional final to Oklahoma State.
Following the ‘92 season, Calipari landed center Marcus Camby of Hartford, Conn. Camby did not play basketball his junior year of high school because of academic difficulties, and UMass locked him up before the big-timers discovered him.
Midway through Camby’s freshman season, UMass opened the $50 million Mullins Center, and the Minutemen haven’t looked back. They are 38-1 at home, and 36 of their games have been sellouts.
Now everyone knows Camby, the leading candidate for national player of the year. And everyone knows Calipari.
So make no mistake. Calipari is not some slick recruiter who thinks X’s and O’s are for tic-tac-toe. He’s been known to phone friends late at night to dissect an inbounds play.
“I think the biggest things, at any level, are if you can get the kids to play hard, play unselfishly and care about one another, and those are characteristics of his team,” said Brown.
No question, the Minutemen play ruthlessly, especially on defense. The words “Refuse To Lose” appear on their warm-ups and appear etched in their minds.
Camby is the acknowledged star, but he’d be hog-tied without guards Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla and forwards Donta Bright and Dana Dingle.
“There’s no birthright to play for us,” Calipari says. “You deserve to play or don’t deserve to play. Potential loses basketball games. Performance wins basketball games.
“You’ve got to defend, dive on the floor, take charges and rebound. Those are the staples of how we play.”
Says Temple’s John Chaney: “It’s a real team. It’s one of the very few in the whole country.”
Credit Calipari. His team is more than a haphazard collection of athletes. It’s a family.
When Camby collapsed before the Minutemen’s game at St. Bonaventure last month, Calipari accompanied Camby to the hospital and left assistant James Flint in charge of the team. He also witnessed every medical test done.
Calipari certainly doesn’t schedule to win. The Minutemen have challenged Kentucky, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Memphis outside the Atlantic 10 this season, with a date at Louisville yet to come.
Against all odds, they remain undefeated. They have been No. 1 in the polls for eight consecutive weeks, the longest stint since Duke in 1992.
“We were No. 1 last year for five weeks, and last year it was a grind,” Calipari says. “This year, even (for) our fans, it doesn’t seem that big a deal. The tournament talks for everybody. There’s no posturing like in college football.”
Calipari’s critics argue that he postures plenty, much like his buddy, Kentucky’s Rick Pitino, a UMass alum who pushed Calipari for this job. Borrowing a page from Pitino’s book, Calipari has used his success at UMass, and the subsequent interest from college and NBA teams, to sweeten his deal, which pays him approximately $500,000 annually.
Naysayers argue that the UMass administration’s greatest contribution to basketball is allowing Calipari to recruit marginal students. According to an NCAA study, Calipari’s 12 incoming recruits from 1991-94 averaged 768 on the SAT. Their mean grade-point average was 2.45.
The national Division I averages for 1991-94 were 847 and 2.69.
UMass accepts prospects who fall short of NCAA academic guidelines for incoming freshmen, unusual among major college programs but accepted practice at other Atlantic 10 Conference schools such as Temple and George Washington. Calipari has signed four such players, including Tyrone Weeks and Dingle on this season’s team. UMass’ academic reputation took another hit last season when the Boston Globe reported that seven of Calipari’s players were on academic warning or probation. The paper printed individual transcripts, which are supposedly protected by federal privacy laws, but Calipari disavows the story.
He says eight of his 13 players made the honor roll last year. He says Kennard Robinson, one of his recruits affected by tougher NCAA academic standards, graduated from UMass in four years.
“Twenty-one kids have gone through the program, and they are either playing professionally or they have great jobs,” Calipari says. “I think we’ve done our job at preparing kids for life after basketball.”
Right now, life is basketball as the Minutemen attempt to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. UMass, with questionable depth at guard, certainly is not bulletproof, but Calipari has a warning for opponents. “Playing hard is not good enough against us,” he says. “You have to be fearless.” Like John Calipari’s Minutemen.
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