John Calipari joined national radio personality Jim Rome on Wednesday for a lengthy chat on his radio show. Rome covered a ton of great topics with Coach Cal, so I decided to transcribe the whole thing. The interview touches on everything from the North Carolina game to Coach’s relationship with DeMarcus Cousins to his recruiting pitch. If you’re a member of Rome’s website, you can listen to the full podcast here.
Rome: How pleased were you with how they responded to that challenge against North Carolina, John?
Cal: Well, I’ll be honest with you. I was surprised they were able to sustain the effort and the fight the whole game. I was really surprised that we were able to grind it out in the second half like we did and put ourselves in a position to win. You know what? It was a great experience for our team. It really, really helped us. Even if they had made that last shot, that game helped, but I also think it helped North Carolina. They’re outstanding. They’re one of the best teams in the country, no question.
Rome: Were you surprised with how your players, especially the young players, handled the big stage as well as they did?
Cal: Yes, but it was the way Terrence Jones started the game that helped us. I thought Doron Lamb, throughout the game, especially in the second half, made big plays. I thought Darius Miller, as a senior, made big plays. And the freshmen – Michael Gilchrist played liked he plays. He’s a vicious competitor. They guarded Anthony Davis, which gave us the lane, because they didn’t want to give up lobs. Marquis Teague is getting better. Marquis had five assists and one turnover as our guard. He still has to have a better feel for running this team, and he will. All of the guards I’ve had, it takes time. It’s a hard position to play for us, the point guard position. I thought Kyle Wiltjer, the freshman, went in and did well. So I thought all those guys did well. Eloy (Vargas) did well.
Rome: As you said, you’ve had some guys who could really play the point. To follow in their footsteps is really challenging. We’re talking about Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, etc. Is he ultimately going to be in their class and are you at all concerned about depth at that position?
Cal: I’ll answer your second question first. I’m not concerned about depth because Doron Lamb went in, and when he was at point we were better. So I’m not worried about the depth. My job is to really communicate and get through to Marquis that mental picture of what it’s supposed to look like to play point guard for us. What I did was I had a highlight tape done of Derrick Rose with a double-double, points and assists, Tyreke Evans, double-double, points and assists, John Wall, double-double, points and assists, and Brandon Knight. Now, I told him, “The picture you’re seeing – and it’s eerily similar how all these player played – but it’s later in the season. This is the first week in December.’ And I told him, “Don’t you worry, but this is the picture you’ve got to have in your mind of what I want you to look like. So if I’m confusing you, watch the tape and you’ll see what I want.”
Rome: You hear that story and we’re talking about communicating with a player, reaching a player. You’ve been around a long time now. It seems like today’s players are not like they used to be. It would seem that maybe they’re a little more coddled, that maybe they’re a little more babied. You, yourself, are getting some of the best of the best but you’ve always coached guys hard and have never been timid about getting on a guy. I want to hear your thoughts and philosophy on that. Do you still do it the way you always have?
Cal: You know what, I always have. The greatest compliment I had was from DeMarcus’ Cousins’ mom. She said, “You know why my son is with you?” I said, “Why is that?” “He respects you, and that’s why I wanted him here, but the biggest reason is you’re not afraid of him. That’s what he needs and that’s how he needed to be coach.” Well, I’m not afraid of these guys. I’m going to coach them the right way. Here’s the greatest thing: You know what they’ll say? “Cal, we love you because you keep it real,” until I keep it real with them and then they don’t like it as much. But the point is they don’t want to be coddled. They want to be coached. They want to be challenged. “Bring it at me if you need to. Don’t apologize for it. Get on me. I want you to coach me.” We have a history. Our players not only go in the league, they do well in the league, so I think they understand what we’re trying to tell them is for their benefit. I told them after North Carolina, my job is to coach. My job is to help them reach their dreams together. Not only individual dreams; their dreams as a team. That is my job. I’m here to serve them. They’re not here to serve me. This is not to pad a record. This is not for me to gloat that I called timeouts late to win the game. No, I’m teaching players to play. It’s easy to guard plays. It’s hard to guard players that can play. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Rome: It’s funny when you mention DeMarcus Cousins. I did run into him one night when I was on the street. I was with Rex Chapman and he said, “I want you to meet my guy DeMarcus Cousins.” And I go up to him and he was nice to me and he goes, “You know what, Rome, you’re not so scary in person.” Let me tell you something, Cal, you might not be afraid of him, but I am. That is a big, big man. That is a huge man. I’m not afraid to say it. I put up a brave front, but he scared me.
Cal: He is big. I had him on a couple of occasions to tears. But he knew I cared about him. He is one of those guys that if he needed my kidney, it’s there. But you know what, if I needed a kidney, that would be the first kid they would call, and I was hard on him. I was tough. My wife used to get on me, “Quit yelling at him. Go yell at somebody else.” But I had to get him to mature quickly and grow up and take responsibility and I couldn’t get off point. The hardest position to play for me is point guard. It’s not just what you have to do and the freedom you have; it’s the guys you follow. It’s not just you. You’re following these guys, and look at them. Look at what they’re doing in the league. And so now here you are. Marquis Teague, his dad even said it, “He’s never played with players this good. This is a whole new experience for him.” But I will say this: Extremely coachable and I love him because he’s a pit bull. He’s a battler. Those are the kids I have success with.
Rome: Can you be a great player without being able to take a good chewing?
Cal: I think so. There are certain kids that can respond and you do it different ways. My point is I’m not afraid of these kids. I’m not afraid of a kid saying, “I’ll leave.” “Leave. Where are you going to go? What’s your dreams?” But I recruit them that way. When we recruit them, I say, “Hey, this isn’t the easiest place to come and play basketball. As a matter of fact, it’s the hardest place” Chance McGrady – Tracy is his father – was in my office after the North Carolina game and he said, “Coach, it is not easy playing for you. Do you remember when I walked away? I couldn’t think. But are you able to be challenged and the bar is raised, I had more fun.” But I’ll tell you, early on it’s hard. I tell all the kids, “The hardest place you can come is here.” Let me tell you, we’ve got to go to Indiana , one of the most well-coached teams, a talented team that now has post presence, that has their recruiting order, that is going to be a top-five program over the next five years. We’ve got to go up there and play. You know what? It’s going to be hard, but every game we play is this way. If you’re not ready for that, don’t come to Kentucky now. We follow up a North Carolina and have to go to Indiana where they’re camped out already. That’s what being at Kentucky is about.
Rome: If it’s not easy to go there and play, what’s it like to go there and coach?
Calipari: You better have been beat up, dragged over the coals, you better have been fired, and you better not worry about web pages, blogs, fans. You connect with them, you let them know (you care). But this is about hunkering down and understanding I’m here for these players. That’s who I’m here for. If I do my job for these players, all the other stuff works. But I’ll tell you, if you’re think-skinned, if you’re sensitive, I bring up stuff to get dialogue. And I don’t care if people get mad at me because not everybody likes me. How about that, Jim? Not everybody likes me. Even the fans at Kentucky don’t all like me. That’s OK. But my job here is for these players. And bringing up dialogue and having people go back and forth, it can’t bother you. I’m not afraid of it.
Rome: You mentioned what it’s like for kids to come there. What’s it like when you get these players and they’re used to getting 20 to 30 shots a game and then they show up and can expect six shots a game or maybe eight shots a game? How big of an adjustment is that for young players when they walk on campus?
Calipari: I’m going to tell you what I do when I’m recruiting. “Do you want to win a national title?” “Absolutely, Coach.” “Do you think you can do it by yourself?” “No.” “So you’re telling me you need to be on a team with seven or eight other players like you?” “Yes” “So you understand that means you’re not getting all the shots and I can’t promise you you’ll start or how many minutes you’re going to play, right? You do understand? But I’ve started 25 freshmen, (some of) who have been freshman of the year in the country. If you’re good enough you will start. But do you understand it’s going to be hard, nothing is promised, nothing is going to be given?” So when they walk in, I didn’t tell them they were going to get 20 shots a game. I didn’t tell them they were going to start. You earn all that stuff. I think when you start a relationship, you only make commitments that you know you can keep. I’m going to work you hard, I’m going to challenge you, I’m not going to be afraid of you, I’m going to treat you like family, I’m going to hug you, I’m going to give you a kiss when you need it – I’m going to be there for you. But it’s not going to be easy. This is not everyone, including every coach. Right now I’m doing what I know is the right thing right now. But this thing is fluid. Our fans are the greatest fans. They’re crazy. One point two million followers on Twitter. Three hundred and fifty something thousand very good, close friends on Facebook. These people are all over it. It’s what you want when you’re coaching. It’s what you strive for. It’s what you’re working for. They’re there and they’re all over it. That’s what it is here and I love it.
Rome: Do you love it enough to say you’ll be there 10 years or more?
Cal: That’s the longest run here I think you could make. After you’re done you’d like to live a couple of years. I tell you that the jobs nowadays that you stay at 30, 40 years, I just don’t think the top 30 or 40 BCS jobs, the internet has changed it. It’s just hard. This thing is 12 months of year right now. It’s every day and every night. Here, whatever I say is evaluated like I’m running for president. “This is what he meant. This is what he thinks.” “What? What do you mean what I think? I’ll tell you what I meant. And how do you know what I’m thinking?” That’s what it is here. You say something, it’s deciphered 12 different ways and they’ll tell you what you think. Again, it is a 10-year job? Boy, I hope I can last 10 years here because I’m having a ball and I’m loving it. You know what I’m loving more than anything else? What I can do for players that I’ve never been able to do. I’ve been able to help players at UMass and Memphis, but it’s nothing like the stage I’m able to put them on now to help them reach their dreams or what I can do for assistant coaches or secretaries. There’s more things I can do for people here than ever in my life. Mitch McConnell, our senator, said to me, “How many guys you losing this year?” I said, “Probably about six or seven.” He said, “Man, you’re creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm.” I looked at him and I smiled and I loved it. I loved it. As long as they’re socially conscious and they understand that they’re blessed and what are you going to do to help. How do you reach back when you gain this fame and fortune? What are you going to do and use that to get back and help? As long as they do that, what a great thing. Only here have I ever see that you can do what we’re doing right now.
Rome: How many recruits do you think you just got with that pitch?
Cal: I’m thinking about at least three or four. And I’m just talking in the junior class.”
UK-U of L game sold out