WKYT | Lexington, Kentucky | Sports

Calipari takes Cats success in stride

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - When John Calipari was introduced as
Kentucky's coach on April 1, he cautioned that he wasn't "The
Grand Poobah."

April Fools!

Nine months later he has conquered the Bluegrass, leading the
unbeaten Wildcats back to their customary perch among college
basketball's elite with 17 consecutive wins, the No. 2 ranking in
the country and a legitimate chance to reach their first Final Four
in 12 years.

Calipari has done his best to downplay his team's meteoric rise.
In his eyes, the Wildcats are 10-7 at best.

"I'm pleased, but we have a long way to go," he said.

Maybe, but Kentucky's best start since Adolph Rupp was on the
sidelines 44 years ago has caught the nation's attention.

"They're absolutely exceeding expectations, any reasonable
expectations anyway," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. "I think
John's been the Coach of the Year to this point. For him to have
taken a program and to have infused so much talent and to get the
talent playing so well together ... is remarkable."

And if that isn't enough to justify being the highest-paid
college basketball coach in the country at about $4 million per
year, Calipari's influence off the court has been just as
pronounced.

He spent his first six months on the job promoting the program
from one end of the state to another with a politician's savvy and
a carnival barker's sense of showmanship. He asked for patience but
did it with a smile, knowing his pleas would go unheeded. It tends
to happen when you assemble the top-rated recruiting class in the
country led by star guard John Wall.

So far, the precocious Wildcats have lived up to the hype,
providing the state with a welcome dose of good news.

"The one thing people have always enjoyed emotionally is
Kentucky basketball," said Kentucky athletic director Mitch
Barnhart. "Cal has brought that (joy) back and given people some
pride in their program again. He's given them energy and fun and I
don't know how you put a price-tag on that."

That would be $31.65 million for eight years.

Barnhart knew Calipari's eye-popping deal - the highest in
college basketball - would raise some eyebrows, particularly in a
state whose economy is slumping. He was almost defensive the day
Calipari was hired, arguing it would be money well spent if
Calipari could restore the program's faded luster.

Nobody asks Barnhart about Calipari's salary anymore.

If anything, said Kentucky alum and booster Jim Host, Calipari
may be underpaid for how he's delivered the program out of the
depths of Billy Gillispie's tumultuous two-year tenure.

"I thought Gillispie was a disaster," Host said. "Cal's done
the best job of being an ambassador for the university of anybody
I've ever seen. He's excited the base of that program like nobody
I've seen since (former coach) Rick (Pitino)."

Calipari has energized the program's corporate partners too, a
segment that is growing seemingly by the day.

IMG College pays Kentucky around $8 million a year for the
school's local multimedia rights package. The athletic
association's take goes up if advertising sales exceed a certain
threshold.

That didn't happen under Tubby Smith and Gillispie. Calipari's
success has helped open the flood gates.

"It has gotten a whole lot easier to sell it with Calipari
here," said IMG College managing director Tom Stultz. "The
sponsors seem very, very happy with him and his attitude toward
them. He's a guy that gets it and totally understands the value of
doing what he can."

Namely winning and looking good doing it - in that order.

The school has been stalking the 2,000-win barrier for several
years, something that had become a bit of a joyless pursuit under
Gillispie. Instead of limping to the line, however, the Wildcats
sprinted across, becoming the first school to reach the milestone
with a win over Drexel in December.

The postgame celebration featured confetti and commemorative
"UK2K shirts" modeled by the players. The school's athletics Web
site set a sales record the next day, a boost deputy director of
athletics Rob Mullens likened to a Final Four or conference
championship appearance.

"He brings a different profile to the table," Mullens said.
"He's put us back in the national conversation on a daily basis."

Though Calipari is saying all the politically correct things
about the early success, his mentor Larry Brown isn't fooled. Brown
is only too aware of how consumed his former assistant is with
getting Kentucky back to prominence.

"I could be in the middle of an eight-game losing streak and he
won't ever ask me how we're doing," said Brown, who coaches the
NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. "It's all about (him). I always have to
remind John, 'You know, John, we just lost our eighth straight.'
He's always so wrapped up."

Well, he does have a rapt audience.

Thousands of fans stick around after home games to listen to his
postgame radio chats. He has over 1 million followers on Twitter, a
cutting edge Web site and his latest motivational book was a
best-seller.

Calipari has made Kentucky basketball cool again.

Superfan Ashley Judd - a fixture in the stands during Pitino's
glory years - has returned to Rupp Arena. Games are drawing such
huge crowds the actress had trouble finding a parking space before
last week's win over Georgia.

"It's like a big cloud has been lifted off the state and people
have their swagger back," Stultz said.

The school has already broken its single-game attendance record
three times this season. The starting price for upper level seats
to next month's showdown with Tennessee are already $150 a piece on Stubhub.

At least those seats are available, that can't be said for ones
courtside. Attorney Darryl Isaacs, an alum and high profile
booster, is one fan who isn't giving his up. He's even started
traveling with the team again, something he did only once during
Gillispie's tenure. During a trip to Florida on Tuesday to watch an 89-77 win over the Gators, Isaacs and several boosters took a look around
Florida's football facilities. They saw the list of $1 million
donors to Florida athletics. Isaacs guessed it's a number Kentucky
can easily match with Calipari at the helm.

"I do think you've got some big donors, when they see a guy of
his caliber and magnitude, they don't mind stepping up," he said.

Calipari understands Kentucky basketball extends beyond the
court. He called boosters on Christmas Day to wish them Happy
Holidays and has reached out to some of the program's luminaries
like former coach Joe B. Hall ensure they feel included.

"It's not something a normal coach would do," said booster
Davis Marksbury.

It's a renaissance Marksbury hoped would start three years ago.
Calipari was his first choice to replace Tubby Smith in 2007. The
coach has proven to be worth the wait.

"He gets people to buy in, whether it's the donors, the
players, whoever," Marksbury said. "I like to say that if we
could take the UK basketball team public and make it a public
entity, he'd be a great CEO."

For now, being "The Grand Poobah" seems to be good enough.
-----
AP Sports Writer Mike Cranston in Charlotte, N.C., contributed
to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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