CigarBoy watches a Memphis practice, talks to the coaches and
even worms a free steak dinner out of John Calipari.
This interview was conducted with John Calipari after practice two
days before Memphis opened up the 2002-03 season with a win against
Syracuse. I did a bunch of interviews last fall and just held them
while I worked on my book.
Calipariís practices are the most entertaining I have ever watched.
It is amazing to watch how he instructs and motivates his players. A
two hour Calipari practices seems like about 30 minutes.
After the interview he invited over to his steakhouse (Calís
Championship Steakhouse) to have a steak on him. Boy this guy doesnít
miss a thing! The restaurant was first class. This interview is packed
full of good information about how he coaches and some of the
philosophies that have made his successful..
I also interviewed Coach Calipariís wifeÖ..Ellen. This was
conducted at the Pyramid after I did an arena evaluation. She's quite
the charmer herself.
CigarBoy: Can you give me a little scouting report on
your team at this point, 3 days before your first game?
Calipari: We are a little light with only couple of
guys eligible to return. Billy Richmond and hopefully Chris
Massie will be eligible at that point. Antonio Burks may have
to sit out this game and Almamy Thiero our freshman, 6í9Ē,
260, has a leg injury so weíre short about 4 players which
makes it kind of tough. We are going to start 2 freshmen, 2
players from a year ago, John Grice and Anthony Rice. John
Grice has not played in a year and a half.. Heíll be a senior.
A pretty young team with a couple of guys coming off the bench
who are pretty young.
CigarBoy: What do you do well against other teams?
Calipari: We were a good defensive team a year ago and
historically weíre usually a good defensive team and a good
rebounding team. I would hope our offense is a grind-it-out
offense. Last year we were the second leading scoring team in
our league. We arenít afraid to play fast, but in the same
sense we are the kind of team that can score in bunches. The
issue with this yearís team is we donít just break down
players. We need to get good shots for each other. Weíve
really got to execute. Weíve got to do it together and that
becomes a little bit of an issue because we are so young.
CigarBoy: If you could sum it up in maybe a paragraph,
whatís your coaching philosophy?
Calipari: In a paragraph, my goal each year is to help
each player have a career year and to get those players to
play together. Itís simpleÖ. have each guy have a career year
and have that group of players play good together. Get them to
play off each other.
CigarBoy: What makes you a winner? Youíve accomplished an
awful lot at a young age. Why are you a winner?
Calipari: I hope that Iíve inspired some people to
overachieve. I would hope that Iíve raised the bar in
demanding a whole lot and usually when you demand a whole lot,
you get a whole lot. If you accept mediocrity thatís what you
are going to get. We want guys that will play at a high level.
We want to recruit players off of winning teams, state
championship teams because normally they understand that you
have to sacrifice and give up a little bit of your game for
your team. We always try to recruit good, tough, hard-working
players. Cheap players donít get it done for me. I donít enjoy
coaching them and I donít think you can win with them. Iím
just trying to inspire hard-nosed guys that are sometimes
overlooked. Iíve coached two McDonaldís all-Americans in my
career, Donte Bright and Dujuan Wagner. That was the only,
McDonaldís All-American that we were able to recruit, not that
I wouldnít have recruited others, we just werenít capable of
CigarBoy: How did you develop the thinking that makes you
a winner? Who influenced you? How did you come to determine that
thatís what it takes?
Calipari: For one thing, youíve got to look back to the
family, mother and father, and say what did they believe and
how did they raise you? In my family, my grandparents, none of
them were high school educated. My parents were high school
educated, not college educated. My grandparents came through
Ellis Island and the whole idea of our family had always been
you could achieve what you want to achieve. Dream big dreams.
Donít be afraid to dream. Thatís what this country is about,
to the point my mother always thought I was going to be
President of the United States. In her mind, why canít you be
that? She wanted for her family that we were all college
educated and it happened. We are the first three college
educated in our family, my sisters and I. I think it started
at UMass where instead of seeing an empty coalmine, you see a
gold mine. You approach is as, it can be done, even though
itís never been done. They didnít dig deep enough and so we
took a program that hadnít graduated anybody in 6 years, 15
percent graduation rate, no African Americans had graduated in
6 years. to an 80 percent graduation rate after 8 years.
Eighty percent of our African Americans graduated and we won a
whole lot of ball games. Final Fours, couple of Elite Eights,
couple of Sweet Sixteens. Now we werenít able to do it with
the McDonaldís All-Americans because we couldnít get those
kind of kids, just one when I was here and one there.
CigarBoy: What was UMass like when you arrived? What was
the state of the program? What were the facilities like?
Calipari: Well, it was down. There were people who
acted like they have never won. They didnít know Julius Erving
went there. There had been good players and they had won New
England championships. But Umass didnít invest in the program
when they went into the Atlantic 10. They invested as though
they were still in the Northeast Conference, which they
werenít anymore. So they werenít able to get it done. The
building stunk, the offices stunk, they had a single secretary
for menís and womenís basketball, rotary phones, and we did
get the budget increased. It was not increased a lot by
Memphis standards, but it was increased a big number to them.
We ended up with a total budget of half-million to $600,000.
When we went to the Sweet Sixteen our budget was I believe,
$800,000. That is when all the other budgets of the Sweet
1Sixteen teams were like $1.2 million and up. So we worked
with less but we had a great staff with Bruiser Flint, Billy
Bano, John Robic, and later Eddie Schilling. All four became
Division I head coaches. I think if you need to surround
yourself with great people and I was able to do that at
Massachusetts and here I hope I did the same. Iíve got two
former players, Derek (Kellogg) and Tony (Barbee). So I think
we have a good team of people.
CigarBoy: Whatís the difference between UMass and
Calipari: The biggest difference is I started with some
facilities at Memphis that I didnít have at Umass. When I
started at recruiting Massachusetts, it was a vision that we
were selling because there wasnít yet results. The vision was
we were going to compete for a national title, youíd improve
as a basketball player, we set goals for individual players,
and what we thought they could achieve nationally and within
the league. Then later on, we started selling results. ďYouíre
going to win. Youíre going to be in the NCAA tournament. You
are going to get rings. You could be national player of the
year, like Marcus Camby. You can be national player of the
year with us.Ē A player could be freshman of the year with us.
Iíve coached 10 years and Iíve had 10 freshman start. This
will be my 11th year and two more will start. 12 freshmen
in 11 years have started, including two rookies in the NBA. So
Iím not afraid to play young guys. Now we are selling results
also, but results at a higher level. Developing NBA players,
whether youíre a guard, like Dujuan Wagner or whether youíre a
big man, like Marcus Camby. I sell that I have been a coach in
the NBA, I know what they are looking for because I was there.
So itís more results oriented. Iíve done it versus a vision of
ďI can do this.Ē Itís almost like you are investing money. If
you look at where you are going to put your money, are you
going to look at the guyís results or what heís saying to you.
So I look at it in those terms.
CigarBoy: On a little bit grander level, whatís the
difference between Conference USA and the A-10? .
Calipari: The problem we have is we have too many teams
in Conference USA so you canít really compare them. In
Atlantic 10, we had a nice mix. Now weíve got 14, so itís just
hard to compare them because of the size of the conference.
But both conferences had good teams at the teams at the top
and some bad teams at the bottom. Thatís just how it is.
CigarBoy: Howís Conference USA looking this year? What
are the teams you are worried about?
Calipari: The same programsÖÖ Cincinnati, Marquette,
Charlotte, and Louisville. Probably 4 or 5 teams like us. St.
Louis is even going to do pretty good. Tulane, TCU, Houston,
South Florida will be okay.
CigarBoy: What is your recruiting philosophy? Do you have
a base in the Memphis area and you go out from there?
Calipari: I want half the guys from the city of Memphis
and the other half from around the country. I donít think you
can do anything when you are just recruiting local kids
because what happens is, in my opinion not everyone of them
can play so now you are getting kids and you are not playing
them. Itís better if they go away and get to play. So if you
get 4 or 5 that you know are going to play and want to be in
your 8 or 9 man rotation, thatís good.
CigarBoy: Scheduling: Whatís you scheduling philosophy?
Calipari: Well itís a little different here in that our
building is so big and we have to raise revenue for the rest
of the athletic department. So Iíve got to play a lot of home
games, kind of like Syracuse. Now I used to get on Jim Boeheim.
Well, you canít play all home at homes because our building
seats 20,000. We make $250,000 on a home game. So I canít go
on the road as much. So we are trying to play 5 or 6 good
teams this yearÖ. at Syracuse and Villanova, Missouri,
Mississippi, Arkansas, and Illinois. Thatís a pretty good
schedule. Last year was Temple, Tennessee, Alabama, and Iowa.
The other 5 or 6 games need to be at home. So we play half of
those good games on the road and half of them at home. At
Umass itís a little different. When I was at UMass weíd play 9
or 10 neutral site games and it didnít matter because we made
$100,000 on a home game and on some of the neutral site games
we made $100,000. , So playing at home didnít matter as much.
We could go neutral or home and make the same money for the
CigarBoy: Four assistants have become head coaches,
youíve mentioned them before. Did you know when you brought them
on your staff that they were all going to be head coaches?
Calipari: I tell them, ďcoach as though you are going
to be a head coach. I want you to look at things down the
road. I want you keeping stats. I want you to think about
whatís going on here and I want you to throw out suggestions
about what you think may be happening.Ē I told every one of
them that. Most of them have done well. Theyíve gone out and
done a pretty good job. They are all terrific guys and I think
they are all terrific coaches. What Iíve always said was, we
are here to help each other. You guys are here to help me and
Iím here help you. My goal as an assistant under Larry Brown
or who ever I worked for was real simple. I wanted them to get
coach of the year. I wanted my head coach to be coach of the
year, then I did my job. I tell them youíve got work as though
you are head coach and do the best job you can and weíll help
CigarBoy: You were coach of the NBA New Jersey Nets. I
guess you found it was a little different from coaching college,
describe your experience in the NBA?
Calipari: I enjoyed my time there but the organization
I was in was like a small business, It was always 30 days from
bankruptcy so even though we had the best finish theyíd ever
had in their division, to that point, second place, and better
attendance records than they had a year ago it never seemed
like it was on solid footing. We had better numbers, more
excitement, more people involved in the program in that
organization. We were always 30 days away from bankruptcy so
the team was sold. There was new ownership, not the people who
hired me and then you had a lock out. We went from, getting to
the play-offs in 2 years and we took Chicago to the wire in
two games. We had them in Chicago, had them beat, tied ball
game, 25 seconds to go, we had the ball. Michael Jordan stole
the ball from Kerry Kittles and a dunk ball ended it. But we
were right there to the end. What you find out is the strong
organizations can withstand being rocked and they just stay
strong and move on. But ones that are like small businesses,
they evaporate. Everyone that was there when I was there got
fired. President got fired, the assistant coaches got fired,
the head coach that followed me, they all got fired. What I
always say is you either hang together or the Ben Franklin
way, then you will hang one by one, which is what we did. But
I enjoyed it. I still talked with the guys that played for me
like Keith VanHorn. Whether itís Sherman Douglas, Tony
Massingburg whoís working out with us right now. He was let go
by the Grizzlies or whether itís the Sherm Douglas who called
me for advice on coaching positions. I still talk to the guys
and if I go to the games, I know them and I have a good time.
For me, youíve got a lot of college coaches who just want to
get into the NBA because of the money. Give me one hit and Iím
retired. I did that already. Now if I went back, it would only
be where I thought we could win. Where I could turn around a
program, turn around an organization. Get a group of people
and say, letís get this thing, juice it up and letís get it
going. Just like we did in New Jersey. We had the biggest turn
around in my second year in the NBA. We had 17 men turnaround.
Like I said, attendance was great. There was a lot of good
CigarBoy: So whatís the difference between coaching in
college and coaching in the NBA?
Calipari: When you are coaching in college, you
teaching life skills. If the guys late or he didnít do what
heís suppose to do, you throw him out of a practice, you
suspend him, and you are teaching life skills. In the NBA, you
are trying to win ball games and if a guy is a jerk the same
way he is in college, in the pros, you start them, you give
them 20 shots a game and you promote him in the papers so you
can trade him. You canít discipline him. If you discipline him
no one else wants him.
CigarBoy: Thatís amazing. What I want to do now is name a
few coaches and have you give me a few words on each coach.
First is Seth Greenberg.
Calipari: What can I say about Seth? (Voice from across
the room ďheís baldĒ) (Laughing) Yeah, let me just leave it
that way, bald.
CigarBoy: John Chaney?
Calipari: The ultimate competitor.
CigarBoy: I think you would have kicked his butt in a
fight, Phil Martelli?
Calipari: Funny. I mean, these guys are all good
coaches. Iím saying that to you and Iím not talking about
their coaching but heís a funny guy, really creative and
CigarBoy: Bruiser Flint
Calipari: Can I say a friend? I consider him a dear
CigarBoy: John Robic?
Calipari: A really dear friend and I would say that
John Robic was the ultimate organizer. He really did a great
job for me.
CigarBoy: Oliver Purnell?
Calipari: Iíve know him for so long. Classy guy.
CigarBoy: Skip Prosser?
Calipari: Prosserís a great coach, very humble about
the visibility of what he does. Everybody knows he can really
coach but if you talked to him you wouldnít think he knows
anything. Heís a very humble guy but a terrific coach.
CigarBoy: Pete Gillen?
Calipari: Another funny guy, I mean he really is. Heís
a program changer too. Heís one of those guys that gets in and
heíll change a program in a year.
CigarBoy: Rick Pitino?
Calipari: If you talk to me about two guys, I guess
thereís three, that if you were to hire one of three guys to
change out a college program, all different at a glance, it
would be Rick Pitino, Bobby Huggins, and Rick Barnes. Those
guys would be the three that I would say if you wanted an
immediate gust of wind, more than anybody I know, Iíd say
those three. Pitino will get it done.
CigarBoy: Barry Collier?
Calipari: Analytical. More capable than analytic.
CigarBoy: Jim OíBrien?
Calipari: I would say playerís coach.
CigarBoy: Lefty Driesell?
Calipari: Heís a good one there. He was the promoter.
He is one of the original guys Youíve got to promote, youíve
got to sell tickets, youíve got to fill arenas, youíve got to
recruit, and that started with Lefty Dressell. Well some guys
just want to get in the gym and just watch players and watch
tape. The job is bigger than that, itís more than that. Most
of these jobs, the program doesnít sell itself. If you are in
a place where it just sells itself and then you go somewhere
else and youíve been an assistant watching a guy where the
program sells itself and all that. You go to get a job and you
canít get it done. No oneís coming to the games, you canít
recruit, but you really know Xís and Oís It doesnít matter. I
think Lefty was probably the first coach that understood that,
CigarBoy: Larry Farmer?.
Calipari: I really like Larry. Heís another guy that I
think is a terrific guy and a great staff.
CigarBoy: Ed Schilling?
Calipari: Very grounded human being who can really
coach. Unbelievable work ethic. Heís another organized guy. I
needed organized people around me.
CigarBoy: Let me go into a second question about Ed. What
makeís Ed a good coach?
Calipari: First of all heís very grounded so he never
gets too up or too down. So I think heíll get that across to
his players. Heís also very driven and usually the players
will take on your personality. If you are driven kind of
person, thatís how they are going to become. If you are laid
back thatís what they are going to do. Thatís just how it is.
He is very driven and very grounded. It think he is truly one
of those guys that cares and if you care, youíll always have
guys that want to play for you. You can get on them. You saw
me today. Iím getting on guys. The thing is when you care
about them you can do that. You can get on guys. If they donít
think you care you canít say anything, you disconnect, and I
think he cares.
CigarBoy: Let me ask you about the NCAA selection
process. Clearly, the NCAA selection committee has said that RPI
is important, who you schedule, who they played and all that. Is
that a good system for selecting teams?
Calipari: Well, the only thing is I donít know how you
do the RPI and how accurate it is. We played South Carolina in
the NIT final, they were at that time, a 46 and we were like
60 and we were up by 20 with two minutes to go. So how could
they be a 46 and we be a 60? For us the problem was our
league, the way we schedule, on our side, you canít win enough
games to get in, and on the other side, 17/18 wins is enough
to get in. So itís a problem in that whatever our out of
conference schedule is, not only do you have to win some of
those games, those teams have to play well after youíve played
them. So if you ever would have told me Iowa, Temple,
Tennessee and Arkansas, thatís a great schedule, would have
all played poorly, and tanked the season, I would have said
youíre nuts! Thereís no way. So we could have had 23 or 24
wins and not gotten in last year based on RPI which is crazy.
Itís ludicrous!. In the last two years, weíve won, in our
league, 12 road games. We won 6 road games a year the last two
years. Road winsÖ.. thatís HUGE! And thatís why I said, they
donít take that into account. RPI just doesnít consider road
wins. They donít think thatís any different that a home win.
Now, my teams at UMass had always been high in the RPI, and
all that because of our schedule and who we play and I wasnít
afraid, Iím still not afraid to play teams. We arenít trying
to build up a record. We are trying to win games and get this
team ready for the NCAA tournament. But our conference, the
way itís set-up this year, South Florida, Tulane, TCU, any of
us, could win 22 games and not be in the NCAA tournament
CigarBoy: Now weíll get to the important stuff. Since you
travel a lot, you obviously know all the good restaurants so I
want you to give me your top 5 restaurants in the country. I
know that thereís so many people out there that are going to
read this and . . . .
Calipari: I like two Italian restaurants in New York.
IL Vegavunda and then I like, the other place wasÖÖoh whatís
it called, Iím loosing my mind. (to a distant person) Hey
Smitty, whatís that Italian place I told you I may meet Greg
Sands tomorrow night? Olives and BoxesÖ.. and Carmineís.
Carmineís in New York City is pretty good and then if you
talked about here youíve gottaíÖ.well Iím not going to mention
one place in Memphis because I'll get killed because there's
íbout 5-7 places that Iíd say are really good places. Thereís
a new place down there thatís really good. For a steakhouse, I
like Ruth Chrisí in Philadelphia. Ruth Chrisí is my favorite
CigarBoy: I talk to the manager in there. He knows me I
go there so much. He said you actually signed your Memphis
Calipari: Yeah I did. Thereís another one I like in
Providence, itís ohÖ Iím telling you, my mindís gone. (To
someone across the room) Whatís that place in Providence I
always go. Itís right there on the river? (No answer What
about in Chicago, where do I go in Chicago when Iím up there?
Chop House? Whatís that place in Providence? I just talked
about it but I canít remember? Well, what the heck, I gave you
CigarBoy: What you do in your spare time?
Calipari: I donít have a CD player. I listen to the
radio a little bit. My daughters listen to their stations,
whatever they have on. I donít listen to talk radio, I donít
read the newspaper, I donít look at chat rooms. Iím not really
on the Internet. I donít do anything there. I read USA today.
I watch CNN. I watch the History Channel. I love Biography. My
wife has got me into Trading Spaces and While You Were Out,
which is a home decorating show. Can you imagine? History
Channel is the greatest. Biography is the great too. Discovery
Channel is unbelievable and the Travel Channelís not bad
either because they have some good stuff on there. I love
World War II stuff. If itís on, I watch it, and the Sopranos.
CigarBoy: What excites you? When you wake up in the
morning what excites you?
Calipari: My family, my two daughters, my son, and my
wife. Iíve been so blessed to have financial security for my
family. Iím driven because I really want to do a good job for
the University of Memphis and this city. Iím really driven to
do the best I can. There is a fire there which I thought might
have been out before I took this job because I, you know, you
get drained by getting fired. You get dragging, you get tired
and you just donít need to go through that. I donít need to
coach financially. Iím fine. My familyís fine. I donít have to
work. But Iím here and Iíve really got the fire to do it. You
watch me out there. You know Iím driven and Iíve got a fire to
get this program to do well. I want these players to do well.
Iím driven to really compete at the highest level in this
CigarBoy: Thatís a good place to stop right there. Thank
you for taking time out to talk with me.
Calipari: Thank you.