John Calipari gets it.
He understands that as the head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team, he is probably the most widely recognized, and perhaps the most admired person in the entire state.
That degree of fame comes with the job — especially if you are highly successful.
And he doesn’t shy away from it at all.
In Kentucky, he’s a larger-than-life rock star, and he knows it.
And he embraces that role wholeheartedly.
“I’ve got the greatest coaching job in the country,” Calipari said Wednesday night during a fundraising dinner at the Telford YMCA in Richmond. “And I’m loving it. Someone asked me, ‘Coach are you having fun?’ I’m having a ball.”
For more than half an hour, Calipari stood at a podium — without notes of any kind — and entertained an energetic crowd of more than 200, who had paid $125 each to hear him speak.
He talked about a wide variety of topics, including his family, a possible contract extension, his coaching and recruiting philosophy and, of course, fanatical Kentucky fans.
“Now, I want to say this. You people are crazy,” Calipari said to a roar of laughter. “We are supposed to win every game we play, right? By 30 points. And if we only win by 10, then we have to dissect what’s wrong with the Wildcats. How many of you tape the games? Raise your hand. Look around this room. How many of you watch those tapes more than once? You watch the tapes more than I watch the tapes.”
Still, unlike others who have been in his position (sorry Billy G.), Calipari has never shied away from even the craziest members of the Big Blue Nation.
“How many of you follow me on Twitter?” Calipari asked the crowd. “How many of you are friends of mine of Facebook? There’s 1.2 million on Twitter and there’s 300,000 very close friends that I have on Facebook. You people are crazy, and don’t you love it?”
Crazy for Calipari.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons for Calipari’s popularity in this state.
First and foremost, it’s all about winning (duh!).
In just two seasons, Calipari has elevated a once struggling program back to national prominence. He’s won two SEC Tournament titles, recorded back-to-back 29-plus win seasons and last year, he got Kentucky back to the Final Four for the first time in 13 years.
But, there’s little doubt that Calipari’s personality also plays a big role in his immense popularity.
Much to the surprise of many of the guests at Wednesday’s YMCA fundraiser, Calipari went to each table, signing autographs and taking pictures with almost everyone in attendance before he spoke to the crowd.
For almost an hour, he worked his way through the room. He even took a moment to have his picture taken with the waiters and waitresses who were working the event.
“My parents were only high school-educated. My sister was the first person in my family to go to college,” Calipari said. “We didn’t have much, but we didn’t know we didn’t have much ... My mother was a dreamer. She believed you could be whatever you wanted to be. She believed I could be president some day. She got me to believe, are you ready for this, that a coal miner’s grandson could coach the University of Kentucky basketball program.”
Calipari also took questions from the audience and offered some very candid answers.
When asked about the possibility of a long-term, year-by-year series with Duke, the coach couldn’t resist a chance to take a bit of a shot at one of Kentucky’s biggest rivals.
“They will not play us,” Calipari said with a smile.
That answer, as you might expect, drew a rousing round of applause from the crowd.
Calipari was also asked if he thought Enis Kanter would be the top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
“I’m saying if you don’t take Kanter No. 1, you are out of your mind,” Calipari said. “But, you never know.”
The Wildcat coach raved about the play of Maysville native Darius Miller and when asked about the negative stigma surrounding one-and-done players, Calipari didn’t back down.
“When people ask me, ‘Would you rather have experience, or talent?’ I will take talent,” Calipari said.
So, while opinions around the rest of the country are mixed (at best) about Calipari, there is no doubt about his popularity in this state — regardless of how many wins the NCAA says he really has.
That was obvious by the reaction of the crowd and the joyous looks on the faces of so many of the people who gathered at the Telford YMCA.
With Calipari, you have to take the good with the bad.
His past isn’t perfect. We all know that.
Still, he’s turned out to be an almost perfect fit in his current role.
And there’s no denying that.
John Calipari gets it.
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