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CigarBoy Interviews John Calipari

Memphis Basketball

by Cigarboy

September, 2003

CB Interviews John Calipari & his wife Ellen.

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 getting there.

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 Memphis?

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 school.

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 each other.

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 stuff.

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 funny.

CigarBoy: Bruiser Flint

Calipari: Can I say a friend? I consider him a dear friend.

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 again.

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 place.

CigarBoy: I talk to the manager in there. He knows me I go there so much. He said you actually signed your Memphis contract there?.

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 four.

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 program.

CigarBoy: Thatís a good place to stop right there. Thank you for taking time out to talk with me.

Calipari: Thank you.

Continue to CB's Interview with Ellen Calipari


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