LEXINGTON, Ky. - John Calipari's office in the $30 million Joe Craft Center is tiny, smaller than the old office Phil Martelli had at Saint Joseph's. A new, larger office is being constructed behind a false wall, just steps away. The Craft Center, which houses the Kentucky basketball offices and a practice court, is attached to Memorial Coliseum, where Adolph Rupp's teams played. It is surprisingly less extravagant than some of the hoops palaces that have been built on other campuses.
It was getting to be late morning on the last Friday of October, two weeks before another basketball season was to begin and about eight hours after Coach Cal had returned from Houston following a very late-night recruiting trip.
Audiences with Cal these days are like audiences with the pope - carefully arranged, double-checked and absolutely at his convenience. I have known Cal for a quarter century but harbored no illusions about getting a sit-down with the man who has somehow made the empire that is Kentucky basketball bigger than it has ever been. Calls were made to Bruiser Flint and Martelli. They called Cal and he agreed to meet while I was in town for the Breeders' Cup, leaving me a message to call Eric Lindsey, the UK basketball contact, to set it up.
It was not until early that morning when Lindsey texted me with the time and place that I knew for sure it was going to happen.
"I don't need any publicity," Cal reminded me during our half-hour conversation.
Calipari, 56, is at the stage of his career where he no longer cares what he says or what you think.
When I asked him if as a kid growing up in Moon Township outside Pittsburgh - who went on to play at UNC Wilmington and Clarion, where he was, of course, a "marketing major," and then serve as an assistant at Kansas and Pittsburgh before taking over one of America's worst programs at Massachusetts - he ever imagined all this: Final Fours at three schools, 2012 national championship, 2015 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
"I was always able to kind of look ahead and not look back, and try to figure out how I make things better for people around me and us and whoever is in our family of people," Calipari said. "When you see a turtle on a post, he didn't get there by himself. I'm like that turtle on the post that everybody says, 'How in the world did he get there?' "
Calipari grabbed Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins at the Hall of Fame ceremony and told them: "This is happening for me because of you two."
"Oh, we know," they told him.
The Atlantic 10 coaches had no issues with Cal when it all began in 1988. They would bury his teams and pay him no mind.
"The early years, there was no choking, it was all hugging," Calipari said.
Cal's only goal then was to make John Chaney uncross his legs or possibly stand up during a game.
"I remember when we were playing Temple and we were 0-for-the-history-of-the-universe," Calipari said. "We had never beaten them. I ended up later being on that side when you win 18 in a row. And let me tell you what happens. The other team wants to beat you so bad they can't beat you."
Calipari used to coach that other team.
"My first two years, I can remember being in the locker room with a chance to lose every game," Calipari said. "You went in there and you're sick. I said to my staff, 'How do guys do this for 40 years?' "
Calipari came upon the obvious solution - have a chance to win every game.
Now, closing on 25 years as a college head coach, Calipari said: "I know how they do it. You're one of those programs that's going to win 25 a year, yeah, you can last 40 years. Go to UMass in the day, go to Memphis when you're trying to get it started, do that for 15 of your years."
Unbeaten almost happened at UMass. It almost happened at Memphis. And it was five bad minutes last April in Indianapolis from a 40-0 chance at Kentucky.
"Right now, I'm hacked off we didn't go 40-0," Calipari said. "I wanted to have a team go 40-0 and I thought that team could and I thought we were the best team."
Calipari still can't figure out what went down at the end of the Wisconsin national semifinal game because his teams almost never lose late leads. It was a bizarre combination of airballs and 35-second shot-clock violations.
"Sometimes, fate intervenes and you lose," he said. "Could we have done more, could I have done more, could I have called a timeout? Yeah sure, all hindsight."
Kentucky is not like UMass or Memphis. It did not take Cal long to understand the difference.
"The only thing they have up are national championship banners," Calipari said. "There are no leagues, Final Fours . . . You don't have to sell a ticket. They're sold. Raising money, other than they need you to do a presidential wave. You don't need to make a call, you don't need to beg anybody."
Kentucky and Calipari were always going to find each other. It is the perfect basketball marriage.
"You come here, you coach basketball and you recruit," Calipari said.
He explained how the private plane he had flown in the previous day made it so much easier to recruit. It also made for a very long day when the recruit's schedule changed.
"I always say, 'Don't cry on the yacht now,' " Calipari said.
Even Calipari did not imagine the trappings on his yacht. He was just trying to recruit the best players he could. He did not consider the unintended consequences that have changed the entire model. After five of his Kentucky players went in the first round of the NBA draft following his first season, Calipari said: "The light went on, holy bleep, what just happened?"
What happened was the ultimate recruiting pitch - come play for a season, win almost all of the games, get incredible exposure and then go make millions of dollars. The purists, of course, were appalled, but anybody who actually understands the top levels of college basketball in the 21st century already knew it is just a business proposition. All Calipari did was announce it loudly when he said after that 2010 draft that "this is the biggest day in the history of this program, if you understand what this just did for us as a program."
After six years, the count now stands at three No. 1 picks (John Wall, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns), six top-five picks, 13 lottery selections and 19 overall first-rounders. It also stands at four Final Fours, two national championship games, one championship and a 197-39 record.
"It not only changed how we do things, it changed college basketball, turned it on its ear," Calipari said. "It made everybody mad at me like it was my rule. Now, if you're not about the kids, you're not getting them. If you act like you're about the kids and they come to your school and you try to keep them in school, you're done."
Calipari cited some heartwarming graduation statistics and grade-point averages for his Kentucky players who stayed a while, almost apologizing for one-and-dones before catching himself.
"It's not at the expense of academics," Calipari insisted. "They come here for a reason. Why should we be mad about it? Jordan Spieth went to Texas one year and now he made $50 million last year. We should say he should have stayed in school."
Calipari said his job on campus is a professor of basketball and "my job is to help these kids get jobs, to prepare them for a job."
Many of these jobs happen to be quite well-paying, with perks like four-star hotels, charter jets and endorsement opportunities.
Now that Duke won the 2015 championship with freshmen (three of whom bolted for the NBA draft) scoring every second-half point in the title game, Cal said: "I won't hear another word about this."
Time will tell on that, but when Mike Krzyzewski does it that way, it does tend to cause less concern.
My last question, because Martelli prompted me, was to ask about the pope's visit to America.
Seems Calipari is very friendly with former Speaker of the House John Boehner. Why wouldn't he be? And why wouldn't he be sitting in the audience the day Pope Francis spoke in front of a joint session of Congress?
"I stood where he stood on the balcony afterward," Calipari said. "I was in his presence, but I didn't get to be close to him. John Boehner and I took a picture of it. You could see the names of where everybody was supposed to stand. That was probably five minutes after he left that stage. I did rub up against the mic because I knew he spoke into the mic."
Cal liked this line from the pope so much he recited it to me.
"The more opportunity you create for others, the more opportunity you will have yourself," Calipari said.
Before I left, I asked Calipari if he was going to the Breeders' Cup. He said he wasn't really into horses. Late the next afternoon, there was Cal, a videographer shadowing him, in the Keeneland paddock, awaiting the arrival of American Pharoah and Bob Baffert.
Baffert, his son Bode and Calipari posed for several pictures. Baffert autographed Calipari's Breeders' Cup ticket.
I have no idea if Calipari stayed for the $5 million race, but I do know absolutely everybody knew he was there.