NEW ORLEANS — John Calipari wrapped his outstretched arms around his freshman sensation, Anthony Davis, and together they headed toward the ladder. Minutes after Calipari won his first national championship, the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats still had his suit jacket on. His blue tie came down the front of his white dress shirt.
He wasn’t about to roll up his sleeves — even for a minute — and show a look of relief that many had waited to see and hear. Calipari smiled, cut down a small piece of the net and fixed his eyes back on the video board where highlights of the 2012 Wildcats continued to run.
The fans on their feet shouting “C-A-T-S Cats! Cats! Cats!” received a salute from the head coach as he raised his right arm in a motion of appreciation toward the student section. But that was about as demonstrative as Calipari got.
On a night when Calipari’s team, one full of high school All Americans turned national champions, cemented itself among Lexington legends with the program’s eighth national championship, the head coach was understated. The words vindication and redemption never left his lips. All of the praise was deflected back to his players.
“I feel the same as I did before the game,” Calipari said. “I don’t feel any different. I’m not going to change who I am. I’m here for these young people, and they know that. I would hope they tell you they play hard because they trust me and what I’m telling them it’s in their best interest.”
Calipari’s words, unbelievable to some, echoed a similar sentiment spoken by former North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Thirty years ago, in the same building, Smith won his first national championship with a narrow victory against Georgetown. Both rosters loaded with talent, Smith and now Calipari felt the same about their credentials before the game as they did after.
Ten minutes from now, one day from now, one year from now, Calipari said a national championship also won’t change him. It’s what Calipari’s friend at Massachusetts, Kenny Ford, said to the coach when he spoke with him Monday afternoon. Being told that he stayed the same throughout his coaching career was what Calipari said was “the greatest compliment.”
“For us as players to play for him, it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit anytime we win and he’ll take the fault when anything goes wrong,” Terrence Jones said. “Just to win for him is something special.”
Calipari’s college stops along the way during his coaching career as an assistant coach and then head coach at UMass and Memphis before landing in Kentucky in 2009, all were missing that elusive national title. The various Coach of the Year Awards and No. 1 seeds were part of his coaching legacy, but Calipari stuck by the company line for the entire night and repeatedly said, “This is about them. It’s not about me.”
Even Davis, the game’s most outstanding player, didn’t want to take credit for being a defensive force cited with holding the team together. He, too, said it was about knowing his role, trusting the people around him and not succumbing to the pressure of putting up points on a night when his shots didn’t fall.
Davis shot 1 for 10 from the floor, finished with just six points, and was voted the Most Outstanding Player. The consensus national player of the year found other ways to succeed as he dished out five assists and owned the paint by tallying six blocks and pulling down 16 rebounds.
“It’s not hard to take a backseat, especially when playing with a great group of guys,” Davis said. “All these guys could play. I knew I was struggling so I told them I’m going to defend and rebound and you make all the points.”
He carefully followed the recipe for success that Calipari concocted as the Wildcats moved the ball around with none of the starting five taking more than 14 shots. The coach reiterated several times leading up to the game that “playing basketball at Kentucky isn’t for everybody,” and that it takes a special type of person to commit to Kentucky’s style of selfless basketball.
The championship game proved that Calipari’s 38-win team wasn’t just a group of talented individuals with their sights set on NBA stardom. This was a cohesive unit that knew where to look when one player faltered and understood that Calipari would hound them all the way until the final buzzer sounded. And of course, he did.
“No one cared who got the accolades,” Jones said. “The main goal was getting to this point and winning.”
The confetti on the court, the cutting of the nets and the banner that will be raised in the coming months won’t satisfy Calipari until the start of next season. After waking up and attending mass on Tuesday, he said he plans to hit the road recruiting on Friday.
When he meets with players he’ll sell them on what his team was able to accomplish and how the players bought into his system. He remains open about the possibility that he may have a lot of new faces to coach next season. With NBA futures on the horizon for several Wildcats if they so choose, Calipari won’t have an idea about who’s returning until the deadline for declaring for the NBA draft passes on April 29.
“I’m glad it’s done,” Calipari said of the accomplishment and the outside pressure. “Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be and helping these young people. … I can get on with that. I don’t have to hear the drama. I can just coach now.”