LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Calipari represents the very best or the very worst in his sport, depending on your point of view. And most people who follow the game have a point of view. Love him or loathe him, you cannot ignore John Calipari. He is the most interesting man in college basketball.
The guy who has led Kentucky to 36 wins without a loss this season fills the two greatest job criteria for a coach: He can recruit and he can coach. On top of that, his personality, his guile and his team have enlivened a lackluster college landscape that has been called "parched." Calipari's brass and bearing say, "Stay thirsty, my friends."
He can stoke the intense flames of college hoop passion in Kentucky -- highest TV ratings in the country, according to a recent survey -- without getting consumed by them. He paints a bullseye on his own back, gathering the greatest talent and making the whole season a pass/fail test: It's a national championship or a failure.
"The expectations are incredible," said Larry Brown, his former boss at two spots, who still proudly calls Calipari a friend. "He does have the best team. He knows that, the kids know that."
Brown, the coach at SMU who also had his team here in Louisville for the NCAA Tournament this week, added to the burden of expectation when he said the Wildcats could make the playoffs in the NBA East. Maybe he was joking, maybe he was taking a shot at the pathetic NBA East and some of his former employers, the Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Pacers and Hornets.
Anyway, it was a sign that when Calipari is the subject, friend and foe both swing for the fences. Coach Cal does not mind. He does not care that he gets ripped as the king of one-and-done-recruiting kids who play as freshmen then leave for the NBA, making a mockery of the four-year college ideal.
There is a method to Calipari's March Madness. If college is supposed to be a springboard to success, he insists that is what he gives his players. They come to him to improve, in a hurry. If it means he has to remake his team every year, so be it.
If he makes a list of America's most disliked people in sports, which he did last year when Sports Illustrated did such a survey, so be that, too. At least one other coach has accused him of having spread rumors about another coach's health. Calipari left NCAA sanctions in his wake at Massachusetts and Memphis.
Hey, we didn't say he was a saint, only interesting. His team had the KFC Yum! Center rocking Saturday with a 64-51 victory over Cincinnati. All week, he has shown a gift for stories, creating and telling them.
He can make the development of gifted 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein sound like a Cinderella fable ("He had two points in an AAU game and the other team wasn't that good").
Unsolicited, he brought up the time he was trying to recruit a player named Roy Brow to Kansas. "I start talking about Kansas this and all the Big 8 championships and all Kansas has done and that we had every major you could want except veterinary medicine and farming. So I said, 'Roy, what do you want to major it?' He said, 'Veterinary medicine.' " Roy went to Virginia Tech.
He can take the heat. He offers players what they want and/or need. "I will coach you. I was in the NBA. I wasn't afraid of those guys," he said. "Now, I did get fired, but I was in the NBA. I'm not afraid to coach you and tell you when you're wrong."
Come to think of it, he led the Nets to a 17-game turnaround. Looking back on it, he was one of the best coaches they ever have had. It was management's failing that it didn't accept Calipari's plea to draft Kobe Bryant.
If you're a Nets fan, or the fan of any team, don't you wish he were your coach? He sure would make things interesting.