Tubby Smith, an ex-assistant, had coached here before. Billy Gillispie, a self-styled basketball junkie, knew all about the storied tradition of the program.
Neither one of them was ready for what hit them.
When you sign on to be the head coach at the University of Kentucky, you receive a lot: Money, fame, adulation. But you give a lot, too, of one thing in particular – time.
Smith, who won a national championship along with five Southeastern Conference regular season titles and five SEC Tournament trophies, confided in a friend that, because he had spent time at UK as an assistant coach, he thought knew what he was getting into. Soon, he said, he realized he had no idea.
Gillispie had been warned repeatedly that the gig entailed more than just X’s and O’s, but he balked at the demands of the job that extended beyond the basketball court, which is one of the reasons he lasted just two seasons.
John Calipari not only accepted them, he ran at them - head first.
No one seeks to monopolize Kentucky’s head basketball coach. Everyone who asks for a piece of him wants just a sliver. But those slivers add up. As Calipari was pushed and pulled across the state, shaking hands and kissing babies, he seemed to be able to regenerate himself, so the fans in Pikeville would get the same, upbeat coach who addressed the folks in Paducah.
“Whether I was in Owensboro in front of 1,500,” he told assembled reporters at Media Day, “Louisville was 2,000, there were 1,200 in Paducah, the response to this university and this basketball program – I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Every place I’ve been it’s taken me five years to build this kind of passion. And you know what? I walked into it here at Kentucky.”
Fans do cheer the school, and the program, but Calipari left out one major element: The coach. And that’s not to say he doesn’t understand that those same fans will some day jam cafeterias and motel meeting rooms to hear the next Kentucky coach speak. It’s a temporary job. The length of stay depends entirely on what happens on the basketball floor.
This season, what happened was sensational.
When Calipari arrived and then landed top recruits John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, UK fans believed their program was about to become relevant again, that the new coach would rescue it from the throes of mediocrity. It was an NIT team last year, for crying out loud.
But it’s doubtful many of them expected the kind of season that played out before them. The Cats raced through the regular season with just a pair of losses, thanks to the outrageously talented freshmen (including Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton) and returning veteran Patrick Patterson, plus a handful of other returning veterans who accepted their new roles.
Calipari was able to blend their abilities by convincing them to check their egos at the door of the Joe Craft Center.
“That’s one of the more challenging things in coaching,” said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, “to take that many guys who are talented and get them to play hard and play well together. And they seem to be continuing to make strides in those two areas.”
Horn’s team was one of the two that managed to beat Kentucky during the regular season. His comments followed the payback game, UK’s win over the Gamecocks in Rupp Arena.
“I think what Cal’s always been good at is getting guys to understand what they need to do to be good and to be good within the framework of what their team is doing,” he said. “There’s no question that’s happening right now. You see a team that, because they’re young, is continuing to get better and grow.”
One of Kentucky’s high-profile wins came in December. The Wildcats beat Connecticut in Madison Square Garden before a packed house, with dozens of national media-types looking on.
“They have terrific players,” said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. “John certainly gets them to play exceptionally hard.”
Winning has helped, obviously. When it comes to quotes or sound bites, Calipari can be Mr. Happy-Fun Guy. Not so, on the sidelines.
He and Cousins have gone at it on the bench – more than once. Midway through the season, he had to defuse a potentially damaging situation when Wall complained to reporters that he wasn’t having any fun. And during an SEC Tournament game, his words during the heat of the fray stung Orton so deeply that the freshman center left the bench and headed for the locker room.
But no team sails through a season without at least a little bit of drama – not even a season such as this. None of it fazed the coach. He knew how to keep his team together.
“If they’re having fun,” he said prior to the opener, “if they’re seeing achievement, and they have great enjoyment out of that achievement, if they’re growing to love their teammates, they don’t want the season to end.”
It was almost as though he knew what lay ahead. Time and again, his young Wildcats would run up big leads, only to see them disappear, and still find a way to survive. Or they would fall impossibly behind, and then pull it out in the end.
And of course, there was the SEC Tournament championship victory over Mississippi State.
“When you have a team with that frame of mind, what’ll happen is, they will win games they shouldn’t win. ‘How did they win the game? They had no business winning…’ Because they don’t want the season to end. We gotta get like that,” Calipari said early in the season.
Before the first game, fans wondered if there would be enough basketballs to keep everybody happy. What kept the Wildcats satisfied were the victories, over which Calipari presided – all the time working with harmonious balance in mind.
“The challenge in what we do as coaches,” he said, prior to Kentucky’s blowout win over Arkansas, “is not to take bad players and get ‘em to play together and ‘coach ‘em up.’ It’s to get a group of really talented players, for the entire season – not half a season, not 16, 18, 20 games – to really compete together, and really put themselves behind our goals. What their role is, is not more important than our goals.”
And it has paid off, in both league and tournament titles. That blowout win over the Razorbacks came at the expense of their head coach, John Pelphrey, who knows better than any coach in the SEC what it means to wear the Kentucky uniform. The ex-Wildcat was impressed by the way the young UK players had responded to the challenges placed before them.
“Certainly talent is really, really important but it’s not all about that,” Pelphrey said. “I think what’s impressive to coaches is that those young guys have been able to come in and compete with a Kentucky-type schedule. They’re not backing down from anybody.”
Pelphrey also took note of the roles accepted by the likes of Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and DeAndre’ Liggins – veterans who deferred to the youngsters.
“I do think they have some very good players in the program who are experienced that blend in there really, really well,” he said.
Calipari never missed an opportunity to praise one of those veterans during his post-game news conferences, even if the question pertained to Wall, or Cousins, or Patterson. He would say a few words about how well they played, before shifting the attention to one of the guys on the bench:
“How about Ramon Harris?”
“What about the way Perry Stevenson came in and gave us a lift?”
“Did you see the energy DeAndre’ brought us?”
The maestro at work.
“It seems like (the veterans) have stepped back for the good of our team in whatever we need ‘em to do,” Calipari said, “which tells you, we have a bunch of good guys. We really do.”
Sadly, the dream ended (at least) one step shy of Kentucky's return to prominence. A flurry of missed three-point shots and free throw attempts had some fans comparing the loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight to the gut-wrenching nightmare with Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four.
For what turned out to be the last 40 minutes of the season, very little went right, ending a year that saw the nearly everything go right for Calipari and his Wildcats. And with losses to regional top seeds Kansas and Syracuse, the road to a national championship lay before them. But the Cats stumbled. Still, there was cause for joy.
Calipari built a program at Massachusetts. He returned Memphis, which had been there before, to the Final Four. And now he has re-energized a UK program and returned it to the national forefront. UK basketball is relevant again.
“I’m happy for the program, happy for the tradition of Kentucky basketball,” said Jodie Meeks, the All-American who holds the UK single-game scoring record. “It’s what it should be.”
Last year, the Cats didn’t even make the NCAA tournament, despite Meeks’ best efforts. He left school a year early and was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Like Meeks, ex-Wildcat Chuck Hayes has been monitoring the program’s success in between NBA games.
“Oh, man, it’s great. It is so great,” said Hayes, now a Houston Rocket. “I have so much to talk about. I’m doing a little bit of bragging. It feels good.
“I still stick out my chest. Now, it’s a little bit firmer than it was last year.”
Hayes said he met Calipari early in the fall, during a visit to the player’s alma mater.
“I’m happy for the program, happy for the fans, Coach Cal,” he said. “Like I said, it gives me something to cheer about and be proud of, down in Houston.”
Another former Wildcat, Derrick Hord, said he was a bit surprised by how quickly Calipari was able to right the ship.
“In some ways, yes, with respect to how difficult it can be for the players accustomed to much more playing time returning and not getting the minutes from the prior year,” he said via e-mail. “Then combining that scenario with the high-profile players, it could have been a recipe for disaster. Look at UNC.
“Then again, after meeting Coach Cal, I agreed with the general consensus: He gets it here at UK.”
UK icon Richie Farmer, who knows better than most about the sense of ownership fans feel about Wildcat players and coaches, agrees.
“Just the enthusiasm (Calipari) has for this program and the respect that he has for this program, the tradition, the former players, the former coaches,” Farmer said. “I just think, the bottom line is – he gets it.”
And that, both players believe, is vital.
“I’ve said all along that if you don’t want to be recognized and if you don’t feel like that’s part of your duties,” Farmer said, “then, you’re not the right fit here. You don’t need to be the coach at Kentucky. That’s just the way it is.”
“People feel a connection,” Hord said, “to players and coaches, certain eras, certain games, to winning. There is a connection like nothing I’ve ever seen.
“It’s important for many reasons, not the least of which would be so those who were building the program in the beginning are remembered, just like those who were here last year. Tradition.”
Meeks, Hayes, Hord, Farmer – they’re all part of that tradition. The hundreds of players who can make the same claim no doubt can relate to the way Hord describes his role in the success of a program that Calipari has returned to the rarified air of college hoops:
“To have helped build the most successful program in college basketball history,” he said, “is almost beyond description.”
Thanks to the efforts of the first-year coach, former players – and fans – can share the joy again.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)