Calipari Has Undefeated Tigers Cruising in His 8th Season
Feb. 22, 2008
Story courtesy of the Associated Press.
"I went, 'Oh, my gosh.' He had 20, and I'm all over him about three plays," Calipari said.
Friends think that may be why his coaching skills are overlooked even during what may be his best season yet.
"People don't understand how much time this guy puts into being a better basketball coach," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said, referring to his close friend and former boss. "That's why he has the record and wins the games that he does."
Under Calipari, the Tigers are enjoying their best stretch in school history. They've been No. 1 for five straight weeks and put their 26-0 record on the line Saturday night against No. 2 Tennessee (24-2).
He is one of only five coaches in NCAA Division I history to take two different schools to the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll, joining Frank McGuire, Ralph Miller, Eddie Sutton and Roy Williams.
Calipari is 400-134. Only Williams (437) has won more games through his first 16 years.
If his Tigers can beat Tennessee, then Calipari will have a good shot at going into the NCAA tournament with the first undefeated team since UNLV in 1991.
"He gets a national championship, people are going to start saying this guy's pretty good," Flint said.
Calipari hasn't taken the easy coaching route.
He took over UMass in 1988 and had the Minutemen in the NCAA tournament by his fourth season. Then he took them to the regional finals before the Final Four in 1995-96.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who grew up in Massachusetts, admires what Calipari accomplished.
"To get UMass to the Final Four? Are you kidding me? That's one of the great jobs all time in college basketball history," Pearl said.
Camby, now with the Denver Nuggets, stays in touch with Calipari and loves to watch Calipari's teams play. He said he sees no difference in the coach's style in trying to get the most out of his players.
"He's probably the best coach I've ever had. Not knocking any of the coaches I've had previously, but he was the one who really gave me a chance, gave me that scholarship for me to be in the position I'm in now," Camby said.
Calipari remains hands on.
"He calls us and he texts us all the time," Tigers guard Antonio Anderson said. "His wife is our second mom, she cooks for us all the time and stuff. And he's our dad away from home. When players leave, that doesn't change. ... He keeps in touch with everybody."
Especially the coaching ranks.
He helped pick up Tulsa coach Dave Wojcik with phone calls after three overtime conference losses. Wojcik repaid the favor by alerting Calipari that a recruit was playing in Oklahoma City the night before the Tigers visited Tulsa. Calipari got to the game at halftime.
Wojcik thinks Calipari's success is more than his recruiting. He calls him a great game coach.
"I think he's got that stereotypical Italian blood in him, which I think is nothing but a positive. ... I think he's really passionate about the game. I think he thinks the game," Wojcik said.
Memphis hired Calipari in March 2000 to revive a proud program. A school that lost the 1973 title to UCLA and reached the Final Four in 1985 was coming off consecutive losing seasons, a scandal that forced out the coach and a year with an interim coach.
Calipari has at least 20 wins in each of his first seven seasons. He also never fails to mention 17 of 19 players have graduated at Memphis, a huge improvement from the zero graduation rate when he arrived.
"Now you have kids in the NBA and Europe playing, but you're still graduating kids," Calipari said. "Did I think that this would happen? No."
Each offseason, Calipari is a popular candidate for job openings and visited N.C. State two years ago. Flint, who has visited Calipari in Memphis, calls the city, team and school a good match for his friend.
"He enjoys it there, and I think the people there treat him well. ... If they treat him well, I think he's going to be there for a longer time than people expect," Flint said.