NCAA Tournament Interviews: Kentucky's John Calipari

March 29th, 2012

Just before the NCAA tournament began CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Kentucky head coach John Calipari, whose Wildcats take on Louisville on Saturday in a national semifinal. Calipari has won more than 500 games at three stops: Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky. 

Jon Teitel: In 2009 you were hired at Kentucky, where you became the second coach to ever lead three different schools to a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. How have you been able to have so much success despite coaching at several different schools?

John Calipari: By making each program about the players first. Everywhere we have been we have focused on helping our players reach their dreams. If we are helping them become better players and people, what do you think that is going to do for us? In turn, they drag us along the way and help us win.

JT: You set a record by having five players selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. How crucial is recruiting to a coach's success?

JC: A lot of people did not like it when I said it then but I will say it again: having five players selected in the first round of the draft was one of the most important days in this program's history. This is about them reaching their dreams. Obviously that has an effect on who wants to come here, as kids know that we are developing them for the rest of their lives. One of the reasons that I was brought here is because I can recruit the best of the best. A couple of years ago I said that there were three keys to winning: really good players, really good players, and really good players!

2011 NCAA Tournament

JT: Brandon Knight went scoreless for the first 39 minutes before making a layup with two seconds left in a two-point win over Princeton. Where does that rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen?

JC: I do not get into ranking shots and saying this one was better than that one, but I will say that is what winners do in those situations. At the time I did not know he was 0-for-the-game (I thought he had hit one shot), but I had all the faith and confidence in the world for him. He is not afraid to make a play. Guys like him are not afraid to miss.

JT: Knight continued his heroics by making a 15-foot jumper with five seconds left in a two-point win over Ohio State. Did you start to feel that you had a team of destiny?

JC: Our guys had a refuse-to-lose attitude. We had been in those situations before. I cannot remember how many games we lost on the last shot in January and February, but it felt like every game. Everybody was going crazy and saying that we were going to get bounced in the first round of the tourney. We put ourselves in a position to make that shot because we bought in defensively, Josh Harrellson transformed his body and became a new player, Knight grew into his position at point guard, and DeAndre Liggins dove on the floor for loose balls. We played for each other and grew together at the right time.

JT: Tournament MOP Kemba Walker scored 18 points in a one-point win by eventual champion Connecticut. You obviously know how to win games in March, but what will it take to get over the hump and finally win a national title?

JC: I do not take this as life or death, and the reason is because you die a lot. I have the peace of mind that I am doing the best I can and am doing it for the kids. If I do those things, I can live with myself and know that we are doing right.

JT: You are famous for popularizing the dribble-drive motion offense, which was invented by former Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg. What is the key to making it work, and why has it been so successful for you?

JC: It unleashes players and gives them the freedom to take their man to the hoop on any given play. Face it: every kid wants to put up scoring numbers and this offense allows for it, but this offense is not made for everyone. I cannot hide you in this offense. It reinvigorated me because it got me to re-think the game and study it again. The offense challenges the players and prepares them for almost anything on the court.

JT: You have written several books about basketball ("Refuse to Lose", "Basketball's Half-Court Offense", and "Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life"). What is the most important lesson you hope to teach people?

JC: To dream and write your own story. My grandfather was a coal miner and my grandparents did not even speak English when they came to America. Now I am the basketball coach at Kentucky. It is like "what?" Do not be afraid to dream big things.

Calipari is on Jon's list of best coaches in both Atlantic 10 and Conference USA history.

Atlantic 10
Charlotte: Bobby Lutz (1998-2009) 199-146, 5 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
Dayton: Don Donoher (1964-1989) 437-275, 8 NCAA tourneys, 1 NIT title
Duquesne: Chick Davies (1924-1943, 1946-1948) 314-106, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 NIT appearances, 1 conference title
Fordham: John Bach (1949-1968) 263-193, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
George Washington: William Reinhart (1935-1966) 319-237, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
La Salle: Ken Loeffler (1949-1955) 144-28, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 NCAA title, 1 NIT title
Massachusetts: John Calipari (1988-1996) 189-70, 5 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Rhode Island: Frank Keaney (1920-1948) 401-124, 8 conference titles
Richmond: Dick Tarrant (1981-1993) 239-126, 5 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Saint Louis: Eddie Hickey (1947-1958) 211-89, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time conference COY
St. Bonaventure: Larry Weise (1961-1973) 202-90, 2 NCAA tourneys
St. Joseph's: Jack Ramsay (1955-1966) 234-72, 7 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles
Temple: John Chaney (1982-2006) 516-253, 17 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 2-time national COY, 5-time conference COY
Xavier: Pete Gillen (1985-1994) 202-75, 7 NCAA tourneys, 6 conference titles, 5-time conference COY

Conference USA
East Carolina: Tom Quinn (1966-1974) 102-106, 1 NCAA tourney, 1-time conference COY
Houston: Guy Lewis (1956-1986) 592-279, 14 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time national COY
Marshall: Cam Henderson (1935-1955) 362-160, 3 conference titles, 1 NAIB title
Memphis: John Calipari (2000-2009) 214-68, 6 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Rice: Buster Brannon (1938-1942, 1945-1946) 85-37, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles
SMU: EO "Doc" Hayes (1947-1967) 299-192, 6 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles
Southern Miss: MK Turk (1976-1996) 300-267, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1 NIT title
Tulane: Perry Clark (1989-2000) 185-145, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 1-time national COY
Tulsa: Nolan Richardson (1980-1985) 119-37, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time conference COY
UAB: Gene Bartow (1979-1996) 350-193, 9 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
UCF: Kirk Speraw (1993-2010) 279-233, 4 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
UTEP: Don Haskins (1961-1999) 719-353, 14 NCAA tourneys, 9 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 2-time conference COY