John Calipari is currently the head coach at the University of Kentucky and has had this position since 2009. Calipari was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015 and won a national championship in 2012. He has been to six Final Fours has been named the Naismith College Coach of the Year three times.
In this interview Coach Cal and I discuss his relationship with different legends in the basketball world, the most intense NCAA tournament game he has coached in and whether college athletes deserve to be paid or not.
SHAFIN KHAN: What is your relationship like with Kentucky legend Joe B. Hall?
CALIPARI: He’s a mentor and he’s a friend. He’s someone who has supported since the day I walked in. Not only has he supported me but he has helped guide me. I don’t know if there is anybody that has more feelings toward this university and this basketball program than him. He played here, he coached here, he lived here, he’s Cynthiana. I mean this program means the world to him so the success of the program was all that he was about. Normally, the former coach is not happy with the current coach for a lot of reasons. He doesn’t want him to outshine him, he doesn’t want him to make more money than he did. You have what I would call “bitter old men” that leave the profession but he’s not one of them.
KHAN: Coach Hall obviously brought a national championship to Kentucky in 1978 but he means a lot more to the program than that. In what ways did he help improve the culture in Lexington?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, first of all who wanted to follow coach Rupp? Who in their right mind would do it? Then who in their right mind would do it with coach Rupp still in Lexington while he still has an office, still having a camp, still having a radio show. Who in their right mind would do it and then would do it to a high level with final fours, a couple national championship games and then a national championship. Social media has changed the environment in my mind in a good way. Now, you hear the army of good and not just the bad. Where you almost had the silent majority when he was back coaching and there was one or two newspapers could write stuff to influence peoples mind. You can’t do that anymore, those days are done. We have an army of fans and if we get attacked and its not true you get called out. Line by line. If you have an agenda about the program or the coach here in Kentucky your called out. If its true its true but if there no lying or agenda driven stuff that works. It used to work. Back then I have no idea how he did it. I have no idea and I tell him that what you did may go down as the greatest of all-time. Now, let me say this to you, you ready? UCLA? Since John Wooden? I mean think about it, we can go down the line of those kind of coaches that left and people are like phew. Indiana is another one. We followed the greatest of his era, its not close, and did what he did? Incredible.
KHAN: What coaches would you say have influenced you and that you have learned from throughout your career?
CALIPARI: Larry Brown, obviously. My high school coach. My college coach, Joe DeGregorio. When I went to work for Ted Owens who was a true gentleman. Larry Brown when I coached with him at Kansas and later with the Philadelphia 76ers. Here’s the one thing – I have got many friends in our profession and I would tell coaches out there that feel they have no friends in the profession that when your done coaching your going to feel like you have wasted your time because at the end of the day this is not only the relationships you have with your own staff and your own players. There are no secrets, this isn’t brain surgery. We can learn from each other. You might as well enjoy this ride that we are all on and if you become obsessed with someone else you will lose and I learned that early in my career. I don’t judge myself against anybody else, I just want to be the best I can be and do what I can for the program, for the university and the city that I work in. So, all those coaches influenced with me in those way right there.
KHAN: Do you still keep in touch with Larry Brown, what’s your relationship like with him?
CALIPARI: Very good, I just talked to him yesterday. I talked to coach Owen a week ago, he’s going to have his 90th birthday July 20th. Coach DeGregorio just sent me a text. These are people that I care about and I know they care about me.
KHAN: Who were your basketball idols growing up?
CALIPARI: When you talk about guys that were playing you had guys that you would emulate like an Adrian Dantley. It’s funny, Kevin Stacom and Ernie Digregorio were playing for Providence and every time I talk to Kevin Stacom now I say “Can you still shoot that 16 foot left hook you used to shoot?” and he laughs. He says “Coach Gavitt let us play now, he gave us some freedom”. I literally remember Kevin Stacom shooting a left hook. I saw it in the arena in Pittsburgh, they called it “The Igloo” back then. Back then you loved the game, you loved watching really good players and you would go in the backyard and emulate them. You would try to pick up stuff. That’s the great thing about this game and how about this, that hasn’t changed. The best players in our sport are all curious watching each other and trying to do stuff that other players are doing.
KHAN: A lot of coaches I have talked to mention that they have learned from coach Clair Bee and Hank Iba. Have you ever gone back and studied those guys?
CALIPARI: Coach Rupp wrote a book that I have and that book is still relevant today which is why he was what he was. Clair Bee ended up writing children’s books. I’ve been asked to do some children’s books and the only reason I’m even considering it is based on the fact that he did it. I believe it was coach Clair Bee. Those guys were so far ahead of the game. Our time learned from the Dean Smith’s, the John Wooden’s, the Guy Lewis’s, the Jerry Tarkanian’s. You learned and watched those teams play and they all played differently. I coached at Kansas with Larry Brown so we were near Oklahoma State so I knew of him and how they played and what they did. We brought in Pete Newell, who is thought of as one of the great teachers of all time and I learned a ton of stuff from him. Coach Brown would bring him in every year and he passed away a few years ago. Because I worked for Larry Brown, one of the things he taught me was when you respect that game that means you respect those before you and I have always tried to be that guy. He would show the utmost respect to older coaches that would come by, to veteran coaches who were no longer coaching. He would show them the ultimate respect and hopefully I have learned from that. So, whether it was Jack Leaman when I was at Umass or Gene Bartow when I was at Memphis or whether it was Joe B. Hall, hopefully I have learned from him to be more than respectful and honor those guys for what they have done before I ever stepped on campus. This is what coach Rupp and coach Hall did. There is only one school that has had five different coaches win national titles and that’s here. The most anybody has won at any other school is two different coaches. Five. I tell coaches straight up “You want to win a national title before you retire? Get the Kentucky job. You get this job, you got a chance.” So, those guys have made this what it is. Coach Rupp did it for 42 years. You kidding me? 42 years.
KHAN: Eddie Sutton had a short tenure at Kentucky but he is the only coach with over 800 wins that is not in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Do you think he deserves to be in?
CALIPARI: I do. I consider Eddie a friend. I’ve had guys be kind to me in this profession when I was in my thirties and had no idea why they were kind. I’m trying to carry that on when I see young coaches if they want that. Many of us in this profession have thought “I can’t have any friends in this profession” but those guys befriended me and Eddie was one of them. I don’t know about his time here and what happened or how it happened but I do know this. I had to coach against him in the NCAA tournament, it was an Elite Eight game as a matter of fact. We lost in the Elite Eight. I think I lost to him a couple times. The way he coached and the way he controlled the game and his approach to the how he did it and the organization had led me to change some things. Instead of more random stuff it was more of a pattern of stuff of how you were going to play and at what point you were going to do things. Where I was more random he was more structured on how they were going to do it and it got me to move toward that. Not that I’m random but I’m not as random as I used to be.
KHAN: What is your favorite memory at Kentucky?
CALIPARI: Winning the national title in 2012. Being on that court in New Orleans and the years prior to that to get to that point to change it around and create what we were going to create here for players stood out. That one stands out.
KHAN: What was the most intense NCAA tournament game you have coached in?
CALIPARI: Probably the Notre Dame game in 2015 when we were 37-0 to go to the Final Four. That game was a war and the next one was a war against Wisconsin but in the Notre Dame game they deserved to beat us and we just kept fighting. Every game we play we get everyone’s best shot but that year was different, we were undefeated. We were shooting for 40-0 and that still sticks in my mind that we didn’t finish 40-0 because that team should have. I look back on what I could have done different. They did have to change a rule because there was a shot-clock violation that three officials missed. Now, you go to the monitor and you can do stuff that they wouldn’t let you do back then but that game was probably the most intense.
KHAN: Do you think college athletes should be paid?
CALIPARI: You know, that I don’t know. I know they are discussing right now name and likeness and I’m anxious to see where that goes. I always say we should figure out ways of doing more for these kids. Everybody says they get a scholarship and they get this, they get that. We take care of our kids but you know what, even if your putting stuff away for them that they get later, we just got to figure out ways but with the committee this is going to be interesting with what they come to.