LEXINGTON, Ky. – Moments after Wednesday's practice at the Joe Craft Center, new Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari stepped into an elevator, leaned his head against the back wall and sighed.
"You have no idea how good that just felt," he said, smiling wearily. "You have no idea."
Indeed, for the first time in nearly three months, it was all about basketball again for Calipari. It was all about Kentucky.
The talk about the messy situation at Memphis, where his former team had its 2008 Final Four appearance vacated by the NCAA last week for using an ineligible player, was pushed aside. The newspaper columns questioning his character and ethics were muted.
On his first day of practice with his new team, the master deflector kept shifting the focus back to his improved situation – one which makes him the nation's highest-paid coach at one of its most high-profile programs. He has brought in the most touted recruiting class in the country to boot.
Controversy? What controversy? Calipari is king of the college basketball world.
Asked if the criticism he received during the offseason would motivate him, Calipari said: "Everyone says I'm better when things are swirling, that I'm not as good when the waters are too calm. That's what they're saying to me. I don't think I'm that way purposely. But …"
Not many coaches will come under as much scrutiny this season as Calipari. Two months after Kentucky plucked him from Memphis to replace Billy Gillispie, the NCAA revealed that the SAT score of former Tigers star Derrick Rose had been invalidated amid allegations that Rose had someone take the test for him.
Rose was deemed retroactively ineligible for the 2007-08 season, meaning Memphis had to vacate its record 38 victories along with its appearance in the Final Four, where it lost to Kansas in the title game.
Although he wasn't accused of any wrongdoing, Calipari became the only coach in history to have to vacate two Final Four appearances [the same punishment was levied against his 1996 Massachusetts squad].
Calipari issued a statement on his website last week expressing his displeasure with the NCAA's ruling and said he would have no further comment on the matter. He stubbornly stuck to that stance Wednesday.
While the coach has remained silent, his detractors have been loud. College basketball fans are using words such as "shady" and "slimy" to describe Calipari on internet message boards while others are attacking his character on radio call-in shows.
One minute on Wednesday, Calipari said he didn't pay attention to the barbs. The next, he discussed how painful the situation has been for his family. His angst was evident when asked about the way he's been portrayed by the media.
"There's [one] guy I don't like," Calipari said. "I know he's a scoundrel. If I keep reading it, I'm going to punch him right in his mouth if I see him. So I'm better [off] not reading it."
Still, Calipari will not to respond directly to questions about the situation at Memphis.
"There is no response," Calipari said. "My friends, the people that I'm close with … they don't need an explanation. If I do try to give one, they think I'm dumb. They say, 'I’ve known you 35 years. You don't need to explain anything to me.'
"The people that want to believe something else? They're not going to listen to my explanation anyway. They don't care. They don't want to hear it."
That's Calipari at his best … answering a question without really answering it, then spinning things forward. That's exactly what's taking place at Kentucky, where he's become a hero without ever coaching a game.
Maybe that's why Calipari still seems so upbeat despite the events of the past few months.
Even with two stripped Final Four appearances, Calipari finds himself in the best situation of his career. The Wildcats will be ranked anywhere from No. 1 to No. 5 in most preseason polls.
He's enjoying rock-star status in the Commonwealth, drawing so many fans at booster events that he's turning down handshakes because he said his palm is sore.
"I've spent the last five weeks traveling the state, kissing babies," Calipari said. "I feel like I'm running for governor."
Freshman Eric Bledsoe had always heard stories about the passion Kentucky fans have for their basketball team. But he didn't realize how deep it ran until a few weeks ago, when he and teammates John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins walked into Tolly-Ho, a popular greasy spoon near campus.
Calipari has brought a star-studded recruiting class and a positive vibe to Lexington.
(AP Photo/James Crisp)
"People stared at us for a few minutes and then started asking for autographs," Bledsoe said. "This one guy came up and tried to take our picture, but his hand was shaking so bad it was probably blurry. I couldn't believe how nervous he was around us."
After years of toiling in mediocrity, Kentucky fans couldn't be more excited about the 2009-10 season. While much of the talk is about the Wildcats' vaunted recruiting class, the main reason for the buzz is Calipari, whose 159 wins the last five seasons are the most by any Division I head coach.
"He's the biggest celebrity in Lexington right now," freshman Jon Hood said. "Granted, there really aren't many other celebrities in Lexington. But if there were, [Calipari] would still be at the top."
While past coaches such as Tubby Smith and Gillispie have shied away from the spotlight that goes along with being Kentucky's coach, Calipari seems to have embraced it. If anything, the love he's received from fans has been therapeutic.
Less than a week after the NCAA announced its penalty against his former Memphis team, Calipari couldn't have been more upbeat as he prepared for his first set of workouts with his new players Wednesday.
Calipari began the day with a three-mile jog around Kentucky's campus before hosting an hour-long question-and-answer session with local media members, who were instructed not to bring up the situation at Memphis. Reporters were also invited to take part in an on-court clinic during which Calipari would demonstrate his dribble-drive offense.
"I want them to understand what they're covering," he said later with a chuckle. "The only catch is that each of them has to step in and take a charge."
Administrators ordered pizza after the interview session, but Calipari – who is monitoring his carbohydrate intake – retreated to his office with a grilled chicken salad. As he picked away at his lunch, Calipari revealed that he has more than 650,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 60,000 Facebook friends.
Calipari said fans have turned out in droves to hear him speak in small Kentucky towns such as Owensboro and Hazard and Pikeville, which drew a crowd of 1,500.
"What do they have, 8,000 [in their town]?" Calipari said. "I walk in saying, 'I'm not signing every ball and I'm not signing every hat.’ But I go in and sign every ball and every hat, because the people are so excited that I'd almost feel bad [if I didn't]. I owe them the best that I can give them."
Calipari said the vibe at each speaking engagement is the same.
"What surprises me is the hunger these people have for this to be significant again," he said. "I haven't followed the program. I was doing my own thing. But it’s almost like they weren't having fun for five years.
"You want to calm everybody down, yet they've been in a funk for so long, you almost want to say, 'I'll let it go for another month.'"
Premature as it may be, it’s hard not to understand the optimism of the Wildcats' fans. One season after failing to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years, Kentucky will have arguably the most talented – albeit inexperienced – team in the country in 2009-10.
Wall, a freshman point guard, is projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Forwards Cousins and junior Patrick Patterson are also predicted to be first-rounders, while center Daniel Orton and guard Eric Bledsoe could achieve similar feats as sophomores.
Watch the Wildcats practice for just a few minutes, and it's clear their athleticism and will humiliate any team that attempts to guard them man-to-man. Along with having one of the nation's strongest, most physical frontcourts, Kentucky's backcourt will be one of the quickest in college basketball.
Calipari, though, doesn't want fans to look too far ahead.
"The people are so passionate and worked up," he said. "You want to say, 'Yo, these are all new kids. We haven't even figured out how we're going to play. We haven't picked up one ball yet. I hope they get along. Who's playing? Who's not playing?'
"I don't know anything, but [everyone] is thinking like we're going to win all 40."
Wednesday night, a few hours after the last group of Kentucky's players concluded practice, Calipari planned to summon the group together for a movie night. He wanted them to watch "Remember the Titans," the legendary flick about a high school football team starring Denzel Washington.
"Our team is almost exactly like that team," Calipari said. "We're blending in six new guys with six old guys along with some new coaches. Right now everyone is probably worrying about their positions and how many minutes they're going to get.
Patrick Patterson gives Calipari a veteran presence to complement his youthful talent infusion.
(AP Photo/James Crisp)
"For this to work – for us to become a team – all the agendas have to be gone."
As much as he wants his players to develop a sense of family, Calipari is adapting to change, too. The process is going smoothly.
He purchased a house less than a mile from Kentucky's campus and is slowly forming a list of some of his favorite local restaurants. He misses his buddies in Memphis and sometimes wishes he could make his regular morning stop for coffee and small talk with the regulars at Gibson's Donuts.
"We spent 10 years in Memphis," said Calipari, who is 50. "We were so engrained in the community. But this is the right place for us [now]. No question. My wife feels that way. We all do."
Not just personally, but professionally, too.
Now that he's in a Big Six conference such as the SEC, Calipari said he'll never have to fight and "kiss boots" like he did at Memphis to make sure his team gets the respect it deserves.
So content is Calipari at Kentucky that he even mentioned that it could be his last job.
"I'm not going to be coaching when I'm 70 and I doubt I'll be coaching when I'm 60," he said. "If I ever feel dread in going down on that court, it's time to give it up. I don't need the money. I don't feel like I have anything left to prove coaching-wise. I'm doing it because I love what I'm doing."
And – no matter what's happened in the past – Kentucky fans will love him for it.
As long as he wins.
"Thirty years from now, [reporters] won't be writing and I won't be coaching," Calipari said. "At that point it'll be about 'What really happened at UMass [and Memphis]? How did those kids turn out? How did they do academically? What did we do for the campus?’ That's what will happen.
"You take solace in that and sleep with a clear conscience."
And keep spinning along.