Closer Than Ever, Calipari Still Standing on the Accelerator
Go Tigers! John Calipari directs his team during the second half against UCLA. (AP Photo)
Go Tigers!
John Calipari directs his team during the second half against UCLA. (AP Photo)
Go Tigers!

April 6, 2008

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - His team was up 14 points with a minute to go, moseying back toward the bench for a final time-out that seemed like little more than a formality. Yet John Calipari was already three steps out onto the floor, sweat ringing the collar of an impeccably tailored gray suit, waiting for them and still screaming.

Calipari stuck his right arm out, violently yanked it back and then pointed at Joey Dorsey, letting Memphis' big man know he didn't want him getting pushed around under the basket, no matter how safe the lead was or how little time was left on the clock.

It was one of those moments when it was easy to understand why one of Calipari's former players once said, "Hard ain't hard enough for him."

The Tigers are headed for the national championship game after demolishing UCLA 78-63, much the same way they demolished Michigan State and Texas before that. Depending on whom you believe, they're either pulling Calipari along or being pushed the entire way by him.

"I'm going to go down to the Riverwalk and do a power walk to use up some energy and then figure who the heck we're playing on Monday," Calipari said.

He didn't have to wait long to find out. Kansas humbled North Carolina 84-66 in the second semifinal, pitting Calipari against the Jayhawks' Bill Self, another coach who figured to reach the title game long before this.

Self, too, hardly needed reminding of what was at stake. Even though his team built a 28-point lead some 15 minutes into the game, he said afterward, "I never relaxed at all."

Calipari certainly knows the feeling. He's put teams in the NCAA tournament 10 times, the Sweet Sixteen six times, the Elite Eight five times, and now the Final Four twice. Calipari, though, has been derided as little more than a too-slick recruiter, dismissed as too much style and too little substance. But during his 16 seasons in college, including 30-plus wins during the last three seasons at Memphis, only North Carolina coach Roy Williams has won more games.

 

 

At the news conference Saturday night, someone reminded Calipari about a newspaper column that ran in Los Angeles calling his meeting with UCLA's Ben Howland "a coaching mismatch."

"I don't think Ben is that bad," Calipari said, then smiled broadly. "I respect Ben and I think he's a heck of a coach."

A few of his peers have been saying the same thing about Calipari, dating back two decades to when the brash 29-year-old with no head-coaching experience took over an incredibly bad University of Massachusetts program and started promising big things. Eight years later, he delivered on one of them, riding future NBA star Marcus Camby to the Final Four and a semifinal matchup against then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.

Calipari's coaching mentor, beginning at Kansas and during a stint as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers, was the well-traveled Larry Brown. But in terms of both his approach and appearance, the comparisons were often made with Pitino. One magazine called Calipari the "the apotheosis of the ambitious, Armani-wrapped basketball coach." And the night UMass lost to Kentucky, wiseguys watched the two well-dressed combatants work the sidelines, then looked up at the scoreboard - the Wildcats won 81-74 en route to Pitino's only national title - and began calling Calipari "Pitino Lite."

It seemed even more apt after Calipari left UMass in shambles for the NBA. An NCAA investigation of the school concluded that Camby had dealings with an agent and received almost $30,000 while in school, then decided to punish the Minutemen by making them vacate their Final Four appearance. Plenty of people felt Calipari's disastrous stint running the New Jersey Nets was his comeuppance.

But when he turned up at Memphis in 2000, Calipari was unbowed and still making grand plans.

"I stayed at UMass eight years, I would have stayed at New Jersey for eight years. I plan on staying here for that or longer," he announced.

Now in his eighth year, Calipari has turned the tables on his critics. He's got perhaps the best backcourt in the nation and a team loaded with NBA-caliber talent. He likes recruiting tough kids, because it saves him some time in toughening up. Dorsey has become a pet project.

He gave the 6-foot-9 senior a "homework assignment" after the Tigers' senior night, telling Dorsey to write out a dream scenario in a blue diary for every game going forward. Dorsey titled the one for Saturday night "No Love for UCLA," detailing how he planned to hold the Bruins' star freshman Kevin Love, to 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Love finished with 12 and 9, but Dorsey, despite going scoreless, set the tone for Memphis' win with 15 rebounds and two blocks.

"And his coach yelled at him the whole time," Calipari said.

"I was trying to get coach off of me," Dorsey shot back. "I was looking at some of the assistant coaches, like, `Please, get him off of me!"'

Dorsey did, but not until the final buzzer sounded. In the same way he's been challenging Dorsey to reach deeper with every game, Calipari has been challenging his team to use all the slights, real and perceived, thrown at his team for fuel. He's told them no one respects the conference the Tigers compete in, their fast and free-flowing NBA style, their inconsistent free-throw shooting and perhaps most of all, the absence of the kind of tradition that North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA brought to this Final Four.

"... I told the team just before the game, 'Does anybody else feel like this is just the next game?"' Calipari recalled. "And so when we finished, I went in and said, 'I still feel like we're going to walk out there Monday night and it's just going to be the next game.'

"Then we realized if we can win it," he paused, his voice trailing off, "Oh, my gosh."

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