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
After just receiving a business marketing degree from Clarion State
College in Pennsylvania, the bright-eyed Calipari jumped at the
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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.
Calipari's Roots at KU
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