Calipari's Roots at KU

SAN ANTONIO — John Calipari remains forever grateful that his coaching career began at the University of Kansas.

Of course, the Memphis head coach would love to beat KU in the national championship game tonight. However, win or lose, he won’t ever forget his three seasons as a KU assistant (1982-85) under Ted Owens and Larry Brown.

On the day before his first national championship game, John Calipari fondly recalled how it all started.

“Bob Hill (then-KU assistant coach) and I were working at Camp Five Star,” Calipari said. “(He) said, ‘Why don’t you come out and work our camp?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I worked his camp. Ted Owens watched me do a station. He said, ‘Why don’t you stay here. I can’t pay you. If you want to help out and be in the office and stuff envelopes, and learn about college basketball, I’d love to have you here.’”

After just receiving a business marketing degree from Clarion State College in Pennsylvania, the bright-eyed Calipari jumped at the opportunity.

“I went, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Calipari said. “So I went out there with two pair of shoes, three pairs of slacks, a blue blazer, three shirts, and two ties, happy as hell.”

Calipari was a volunteer his first year under Owens, and then a part-time assistant for two years under new head coach Larry Brown.

Calipari had a ball, even though he was financially challenged.

“To eat, I worked at the training meal,” he said. “The Sinclairs ran the training table. I would serve peas or corn. (I’d ask people), ‘What would you like, peas or corn?’ I (said), ‘I’ll be there early for practice if you want to do some extra shooting.’

“I remember the first time in Allen Fieldhouse, the old locker room, I went in and it was old. I’m thinking Phog Allen showered (here). I said, ‘This has been her since the building, right?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ The storied history of Kansas. The environment to live, to raise a family. It was tough for a 25-year-old because you’re not going to hang around the students. You didn't’ have any money to go to the country club. But what it made me do, I just got into basketball. I was in the office all the time doing stuff. It was a great time, and I met my wife in Kansas. She was poor, I was poor.”

Calipari certainly isn’t poor anymore. He’s become one of the best coaches in college basketball and led both UMass (1996) and Memphis to the Final Four. After leaving Kansas, Calipari served as an assistant at Pittsburgh for three years before taking the UMass head coaching job in 1988. He coached there until 1996, taking the Minutemen to five straight NCAA tournaments (1992-96).

He left UMass in June of 1996 to become executive vice president of basketball operations and head coach of the New Jersey Nets. After leading the Nets to a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division and the playoffs in 1998, Calipari was eventually fired the following year.

That’s when he got a call from Brown, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach, asking if Calipari would like to rejoin him as an assistant.

“I’m so appreciative of Larry Brown as a mentor and friend,” Calipari said. “I walked with him this morning on the Riverwalk. None of the things that have happened for me or my family would have happened (if it wasn’t for him).  ... He didn’t have to (hire me as an assistant). He didn’t need me. The guy is a Hall of Famer.”

“I had three calls when I got fired,” Calipari added. “Larry Brown, my father, and Howard Garfinkel (who Calipari knew when he worked Garfinkel’s Five-Star Camp). That’s why Larry Brown reaching out and saying, ‘Come on down here and join me,’ what it did for me, one, it starts to bring you back. Men, their livelihood, how they make a living, is how they think they are. That’s their life. So you kind of die. And so he helps there (and) also confirmed how I felt about the game and how to teach it because I was with him.”

After a year with Philly, Calipari was hired as the University of Memphis’ 16th head basketball coach on March 11, 2000. He has since left an indelible mark with the program. In fact, his 104 victories since 2005-06 tie Memphis for the No. 1 spot on the all-time NCAA Division I  list for most wins (104) in three years.

KU coach Bill Self has great respect for Calipari. Self actually became a graduate assistant at KU in 1985 three weeks after Calipari left KU for Pittsburgh.

“I’ve known Cal forever,” Self said. “Going to UMass and then coming to Memphis and getting both places to the Final Four is a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment.”

Calipari gives Self props as well.

“Through that connection (with Brown), we’ve been friends,” Calipari said. “I am so happy for him and what he’s been able to do in his career. He’s a good man. He’s a great coach. We probably recruit the same type of kids and the same players. (We) recruit more against Kansas than I recruit against anybody else.

“We’re two competitive coaches. It’s easier for me when I like somebody than it is if I really want to beat somebody, because that gets me off point. I tell (my players), ‘You get inspired when you’re mad.’ I can’t do it. I’d rather have a guy that I really respect and like. Let me go coach against that guy, have fun doing it.”

Calipari hopes to have a lot of fun Monday night coaching against Self in the national championship game. But even if he wins it all, that moment can never replace the three years he spent at Kansas.

“It was the best time of my life,” Calipari said.

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