It has been a big year for John Calipari. In spring, he left Memphis for one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, Kentucky. Three weeks later, he landed the No. 1 recruit in the nation. More recently, his latest book, Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. And he’s out front – as far as college coaches go – in the social media revolution, with a large following on Facebook and on twitter. His next logical step? An interview with a blog.
Some topics, however, were off limits. Feeling that he had spoken enough about the Derrick Rose SAT situation (for instance here, 6:15 mark) and because the case is in the appeal process, Calipari refused to take questions via email about Rose. Calipari also passed on a question about package deals, declined to talk about what “Bouncing Back” must be like for his new coaching rival, Rick Pitino, and he didn’t want to address the fact that he was a tremendous free throw shooter in his playing days, yet his Memphis teams shot free throws poorly.
Q: Your book – which made both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times best seller lists and is now in its seventh printing – is titled “Bounce Back,” so let’s start with the obvious … how do you bounce back from the loss in the 2008 National Title game? Up by nine with about 2:12, and losing in overtime … is that the kind of game where you don’t sleep for a few nights? Go on an instant vacation? How did you bounce back in the days and weeks following the loss?
Calipari: As I discuss in the book, I was able to handle the title game loss precisely because of what I went through when I was fired by the New Jersey Nets. You realize pretty quickly that it’s not about you. I had a locker room full of players, coaches and staff that needed to understand that not matter how much the loss hurt at that moment, that they had been part of an unbelievable team and a true dream season. I had to take of care of my basketball family and then my real family – I didn’t even think of myself for several days. By that point, I had reconciled that things happened for a reason. Fate intervenes in our lives all the time.
We got back to Memphis and there was a huge crowd there waiting for us and that helped to start the “recovery.” In “Bounce Back” there’s a theme we get into about “getting out from under the covers.” After the Nets firing, my wife, Ellen, had to rip the covers off of me. After the Kansas game, I got out from under the covers on my own. I went right back out and started recruiting. You can’t hide – it sends the wrong message.
Q: A quote early in the book is, “It’s not about how far you fall, but how high you rebound.” Have you had fellow coaches or former players contact you when they hit a low point?
Calipari: For sure – that was really one of the first reasons why I started writing the book. After a few years at Memphis, I started getting calls from coaches at all levels. They wanted to know what I did after the Nets fired me. How I handled certain things? What I did to stay visible? Who I reached out to?
I asked those same questions when I was going through it and I wished I’d had this book then.
You won’t believe this, but it’s true – I took a legal pad out to my back patio in Memphis and sat there and hand wrote almost 300 pages over a few days. I had it typed up, sent it out to a few of my closest friends and asked them if they thought there was a book in it. They told me two things: You can’t write and yes, there’s something there. So I hired a writer (David Scott who I had known since our UMass days) and we got one of the greatest agents in New York, David Black, and things went from there.
Q: Professionally, can you identify a low point that took you the longest to bounce back from?
Calipari: The hardest thing is when you don’t have people around you and you get dinged – you’re truly an island. I had things early in my career that brought anxiety. For example, my first month on the job at UMass I got a call late one night that some of the returning players had been arrested for breaking and entering. I looked over to Ellen and said, “Did we unpack yet?” I thought I was done. I didn’t think I’d ever get over that and that next week was so incredibly hard for me. But it was made worse because I had hardly any connections in the game – no one to really lean on. So that was hard for me. Early on, in the days I was an assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh, while I was trying to find my way through the recruiting maze and I’m learning on the run – you learn early on that no one feels sorry for you.
You wake up in a dead sweat thinking you lost every recruit, that you weren’t getting anyone, and you realize it was a dream. But again, you have no one to lean on and you think every thing that happens will be the last thing in your career. You don’t realize that life is a series of bounce backs. That’s another thing we discuss in the book – you will go through many bounce backs in life. The key is to learn from each one and become stronger.
All that said, the Nets firing was so public, so personal, so mean, that it knocked me to my knees. I wasn’t ready for the venom that came with that.
Q: Your arrival in Lexington is the perfect storm: The SEC is down, the program returns some talent, and the recruiting class is top notch. Between your prior success at UMass and Memphis, will you be surprised if the Wildcats are Final 4 preseason favorite, along with maybe Kansas, Michigan State, and North Carolina?
Calipari: We’re overrated. I’m serious. We’ve got six new guys who all think they poop ice cream. We’ve got six returnees who all think it’s their turn. It’s great to be mentions in with those schools, but right now – before practice has even started – we’re not a Top 10 team – maybe not a Top 25 team. But that’s what I love – I love molding a team and bringing them together and watching them grow and learn to respect each other and then love each other.
I am so excited to coach this team – it’s been an unbelievable seven months but I am so ready to be with my team and just coach. That is when I’m happiest.
We are talented but this isn’t tennis or bowling this is a team full of players playing for each other and off one another. It’s not just the five guys on the court it’s the eight guys on the bench. It’s a new system – you have to understand with the dribble drive it’s like I’m teaching martians – they know nothing about this system of play and this style
Q: You’ve really popularized the dribble-drive penetration offense, but when it comes to recruiting, do you look for kids who understand and have played that offense in high school or AAU? If you’re down to one scholarship, and two players are virtually even in every category, except one kid has two years of experience with the dribble drive and the other would have to learn from scratch … would experience matter here?
Calipari: No kids are ever similar in every other way – it would have some bearing but very little probably. I need to know if the kids got the skillset to play the way we play. The next thing is they have to understand they will not be the only player on the team that can play. This is a balanced attack and we have a lot of talented players who were THE guy in high school.
Then I go to, ‘Does he have a good heart?’ It doesn’t matter where he’s from, whether he’s still growing socially, academically; if he’s black, white, Latino Chinese – none of that matters. For me, it’s, ‘Does he have a good heart?’
Let’s be real, there’s no other college team playing this system and the high school teams that are using it (and those numbers are growing, believe me because they’re buying the DVDs) are using it differently. No one runs it the way we run it.
Q: Were you surprised at the Kentucky fan reaction to the Obama jersey? Did it make you disappointed in the Kentucky fanbase before ever taking the court with the program? Was that the first time you had ever mixed politics and basketball?
Calipari: The thing you learn when you occupy this seat is that nothing is minor. Everything you say or do is major and I now know that. My whole thing is I’m not going to support anyone while they’re running but once they are in office – once the electorate has spoken – I’m going to be behind that person. When it’s all said and done, I’m betting on America and that means supporting the officials who are elected.
I wouldn’t say I was mixing politics and basketball – I had an opportunity to get the President of the United States a copy of “Bounce Back” and I thought it was a good idea to get some Kentucky Blue into the White House at the same time. It was nothing more than that.
Q: Some people (fans, media) think one-and-done players are responsible for the demise of college basketball. For instance … in the last five years, Duke hasn’t had a one-and-done player … the Blue Devils haven’t been to the Final Four since 2004. You land Derrick Rose and get to the title game; Ohio State did the same with Greg Oden in 2007. What is your thought process like when recruiting a potential one-and-done player? Can they be detrimental to the program in the long run?
Calipari: They’ve never been detrimental for my program and I’ve had four of them. You know the reason why we’ve been fine with them? Because all of them have been team players. If they’re takers – instead of givers – then they can be detrimental. But my guys have all been givers.
Now, when you say the “demise of college basketball,” I can’t agree with that. The sports has never been more popular – ever. I’m involved in this EA Sports College Basketball 2010 video game – you know that thing is going to sell, right? So where’s the demise? I don’t see it. Maybe others do, but I don’t.
Q: What are your thoughts on the NBA changing the “one-year-in-college” rule? Many pundits have weighed in on this; some think high school players should be eligible, others think one year is fine; others yet think two years is a minimum. Which camp are you in? Without focusing on other sports, such as golf, tennis, college football, etc … for elite basketball players, do you think they should be forced to go to college for a year if it is just a stop-gap to the NBA?
Calipari: Here’s where I’m at with that and you can decide for yourself:
Think about the inherent flaws in today’s recruiting environment. Coaches I have spoken with over the summer share my concerns and are tired of the problems facing our game. Without talking about the issues openly, we make it impossible to find a solution.
Granted, identifying those key topics to discuss will be challenging. But we’ve got to try something because the current model just isn’t working.
After thinking long and hard on the subject, I have come up with these four areas I think we should initially target.
1. Work with the NBA to give our student-athletes the same option as their classmates who play baseball enjoy. That sport’s players are allowed to either go straight to Major League Baseball from high school or, if they do commit to a college or university, are then required stay at least two years.
2. Eliminate the summer recruiting period all together and bring the game back to the high school level where educators can be more involved in the process which would help scale down summer basketball. I would still leave April and September long weekends open for AAU events (especially Labor Day) where AAU basketball could still have events to showcase and evaluate players against one another.
3. The elite players in the game today are eligible, through the NCAA to receive loans to pay for insurance policies. My suggestion is that those same players also be eligible to receive loans up to a certain amount for the school year. Those loans would be paid back upon graduation or when they receiving a pro contract and would be paid back by the athlete
4. I would allow time with our own players in the summer. If there’s no July recruiting, we should be able to conduct practices with our enrolled students, who are in summer session. We’d get an hour a day, four days a week to work with the players in groups of four.
Q: You caught some heat recently for adding a graduate assistant to your staff … who happens to be best friends with LeBron James. Other coaches might claim that you’re trying to influence recruits because of Mr. Weems’ connection to the best player in the NBA. How would you respond to them? What kind of role/purpose does a graduate assistant serve on staff?
Calipari: I don’t get that one, I really don’t. I’ve always had guys on my staff who are friends of my friends or relatives. Right now I have Vance Walberg’s son, Jason on staff. I’ve got Tony Delk and Scott Padgett – two guys that want to get into coaching. If I can help someone and I have a spot, I will. Do people think I’m going to get LeBron to come play at Kentucky? I think that ship has sailed.
Q: Why do you think the majority of college coaches fail in the NBA? Here are just a few recent names: Mike Montgomery, Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian, Tim Floyd, Lon Kruger and yourself. Very few find instant success, or are given enough time for success. You actually got to the Nets to the playoffs one season… what would you say is the key to success for college coaches who make the leap?
Calipari: They get bad jobs, that’s it. It’s as simple as that.
Q: Which player that you coached at the college level are you surprised never made it big in the NBA? I expected DaJuan Wagner to be an all-star in the NBA but he had major surgery that changed the direction of his career – it changed him physically.
Q: Recruit you went hardest after but were unable to land. Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire. There some of the others who are still playing so I’m not comfortable mentioning them.
Q: Now that you’re coaching in the SEC and the regular season schedule will be challenging, will you still feel compelled to stack the early-season schedule with as many top-tier opponents as you did at Memphis? I don’t know any other way to do it. The only way you find out about your team is by playing against top competition. I’ll just want to make sure that my team is talented and veteran enough to deal with that kind of schedule. I wont do it to a team that isn’t prepared for that kind of setting or those kind of games.
Q: Greatest concert you’ve ever attended. I think there was a Billy Joel/Elton John concert in the early 2000s maybe?
Q: Would you coach in the NBA again? I don’t want to sit here and say absolutely not. You never know. BUT, I’ve got a job that’s just about on par with any other NBA job. I would say the chances are I won’t because of where I’m coaching now. I’m at Kentucky. It’s the Meccva. If I was at another job not as high profile as this, maybe I would be more inclined to think about the NBA. But Kentucky? Are you serious? There’s maybe two or three NBA jobs on par with the Kentucky job. Maybe.