Howard Herman: Catching up with John Calipari

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Even for coaches like John Calipari, some years are easier than others.

Calipari, the former UMass head coach, has his Kentucky Wildcats at 15-4 and 5-2 in the SEC after beating Vanderbilt on Saturday. But when I talked with the former Minuteman mentor last week, he said that it isn't about the past or the future.

"Like I told my staff, we just have to worry about the next game," Calipari said, when I ran into him last week at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield.

Calipari was there to check out Wilbraham and Monson's Wenyen Gabriel, a 6-foot-10 forward who was Kentucky's top recruit. Calipari also watched his son Brad, a senior at MacDuffie, when the two schools played each other.

The Wildcats have, in the eyes of many in the basketball cognoscenti, been a disappointment. That's what having the reported top recruiting class in the country but a team that was 13-4 a week ago. Two wins, at Arkansas and at home against Vanderbilt, has helped.

"Don't worry about what's happening in the country," is part of Calipari's words of wisdom to his staff. "It doesn't matter."

Calipari can say that, but to thousands of fans across the country, Kentucky's 15-4 start (after two straight wins) has been kind of painful to see.

But for the guy who built the UMass program from scratch, despite the outside pressure, it has been fun.

"However you're doing it, you've got to learn to enjoy it," he said. "Whether you're coaching veterans, players who come back for three or four years, or you're coaching kids that are leaving and mixing them with veterans.

"It's a challenge for all of us. There's no easy jobs out there. Every job has its own challenge."

It's been five weeks since Calipari and Barbee returned to Amherst to watch UMass hang a banner honoring its former coach from the rafters. The Kentucky coach said it was a great night.

"The dinner we had in Boston the night before was outstanding. The reception we had before we had the unveiling, the players who came back, I just like it when people come together and there's a great enjoyment that everybody had," said Calipari.

Tony Barbee was along for the ride in Amherst, and he's along for the ride again in Lexington. Barbee was a UMass player and an assistant under Bruiser Flint. Barbee worked for Calipari in Memphis before becoming a head coach at Texas-El Paso and then Auburn.

"It's the best. I've known the guy since I was 15. I played for him, worked for him for a lot of years," said Barbee. "It's always neat being around Coach."

It may not always be easy and it might be a challenge to coach the Wildcats, but one way to bring a smile to Calipari's face is to remind him of the first time he visited Pittsfield. It was 1988 and he spoke at the banquet honoring the state champions St. Joseph's boys.

I was curious about one thing: Was it easier to coach at Kentucky or to watch his son play basketball. I remember watching my son play four different sports in high school, and it isn't easy because you can't control anything.

But watching MacDuffie win last week was a good thing.

"I enjoy watching him and saying stuff to him. My stuff is more body language and those kind of things," said Calipari. "Them winning that game kind of softened what happened to us [Saturday night].

"I've got to go watch some tape."

That's a coach for you, always thinking about the next game.

Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.


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