A “players-first” coach with a penchant for helping people reach their dreams, John Calipari, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, has guided six teams to the Final Four, led one to a national championship, and helped 31 players make it to the NBA during his 23-year college coaching career.
From UMass to Memphis and now Kentucky, Calipari’s career has been successful throughout, but his most recent run in Lexington has been the best stretch of his career.
In advancing to the 2015 Final Four, Coach Cal became one of just three coaches all-time to make four Final Fours in a five-year span, joining Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden as the other coaches to achieve that feat. Twice at UK (in 2012 and in 2015) his teams have won 38 games, tying his 2008 Memphis team for the most wins in college basketball history.
At the end of the 2014-15 season, Calipari became the 96th coach to join the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, considered to be one of the ultimate achievements in the game.
Calipari reached the mountaintop in his third year in Lexington, guiding Kentucky to its eighth national championship and his first national title. He is one of only two coaches to lead three different schools to a Final Four (UMass-1996; Memphis-2008; Kentucky-2011, 2012, 2014, 2015).
The Wildcats rode the trademark hard-nosed Calipari defense to the 2012 title, finishing the season as the nation’s top-ranked team in field-goal percentage defense and blocked shots.
Kentucky lost three members of its 2011 Final Four team (two to the draft, one to graduation), but Calipari reloaded with the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class for the third straight season. Included in the class were eventual National Player of the Year Anthony Davis and All-American Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
En route to the national championship, Calipari guided the Wildcats to an NCAA record-tying 38 wins, a perfect 16-0 mark in the Southeastern Conference and the school’s 45th SEC championship, all while extending his winning streak in Rupp Arena to 51 straight games. Calipari later extended his perfect mark at home as UK’s coach to 54 games before finally losing in his fourth year at Kentucky.
Upon being named head coach on April 1, 2009, Calipari continued to work his magic of resurrecting once proud programs, taking an NIT team in 2009 to the 2010 NCAA Elite Eight. Along the way he led the Wildcats to a No. 1 ranking (UK’s first since 2003), the program’s 44th SEC regular-season championship and 26th SEC Tournament title.
The honors continued after the 2009-10 season as Calipari became the first coach in UK history to receive the Adolph Rupp National Coach of the Year award. He then watched as five of his players were selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, the first time a school has ever produced five first-round picks in a single draft. Among those picks was the first Wildcat ever taken as the No. 1 overall pick, John Wall.
In his inaugural season as head coach of the Wildcats, Calipari posted his fifth straight 30-win season, the only coach in NCAA Division I history to do so. In addition to the Adolph Rupp National Coach of the Year award, Calipari was also named the AP SEC Coach of the Year.
When he led Kentucky back to the No. 1 spot in the country, Calipari became one of only two coaches (Frank McGuire) in NCAA history to lead three teams to a No. 1 ranking. He led UMass to a No. 1 ranking in 1995 and 1996, and he led Memphis to the No. 1 spot in the 2008 season.
In his second year in 2010-11, a season that was labeled as a “rebuilding effort,” one in which Calipari and the Cats were supposed to struggle after losing an unprecedented five first-round picks in the 2010 NBA Draft, Kentucky reloaded as Calipari guided UK to its 27th SEC Tournament championship and collected his 500th career on-court win.
Coaching the youngest team in the nation in 2013-14, Calipari guided Kentucky back to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons, coming up just one win short of his second national championship and the program’s ninth title.
Calipari and the Cats reached the championship game in what some national pundits called one of the greatest NCAA Tournament runs of all-time. Seeded No. 8 in a region analysts called “the region of doom,” UK knocked off previously undefeated and top-seeded Wichita State, downed defending national champion and archrival Louisville, and defeated defending national runner-up and Big 10 champion Michigan before edging Wisconsin in the Final Four. UK became the first team ever to knock off three of the previous season’s Final Four teams, and the Cats did so starting five freshmen and coming off an appearance in the NIT the season before.
The core of that 2014 Final Four team returned to Lexington for the 2014-15 season and joined one of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting classes, putting Calipari in an unprecedented coaching position. With a roster full of players capable of starting at just about any other school, Coach Cal got his team to share and sacrifice minutes for one another with a two-platoon system and got a collection of future pros to play for one another.
The result was a season unlike anything college basketball had ever seen before. Behind one of the game’s best defensive units ever, the Wildcats became the first team in NCAA history to post a 38-0 record. Among UK’s most notable achievements in 2014-15 were the longest winning streak in program history, the best start ever by an SEC team, the school’s 46th SEC regular-season championship and its 28th SEC Tournament crown. The 38 straight wins marked the 17th streak of Calipari’s career where his teams won 10 or more consecutive games during the season, the sixth where they won 20 or more, the fifth where they won 25 or more, the first where they won 30 or more, and the first where they won 35 or more.
Though he deferred all the credit to his players for allowing the season to happen, Calipari raked in a handful of national coach of the year awards nonetheless, including honors from the AP (his first), Naismith (his third, becoming the first coach to win it at multiple programs), National Association of Basketball Coaches (his third), Sporting News and the Adolph Rupp Award (his second).
Much like he did at UMass, when his players graduated at nearly 80 percent, Calipari has stressed academics. Fifteen of his final 18 seniors that came through the Memphis program earned their bachelor’s degrees, and all 10 players at UK who were eligible to graduate by the end of their senior years walked away with a degree in hand, while two (Jarrod Polson and Patrick Patterson) earned a degree in just three years.
Following a 3.4 grade-point average in the 2013 spring semester — the highest in Coach Cal’s tenure at UK — the Wildcats’ scholarship players posted a 3.11 GPA for the second consecutive semester in the 2014 fall semester. It marked the seventh time in the last eight semesters Coach Cal’s team earned a 3.0 or better.
As someone who prides himself on helping young men reach their dreams, he has placed 31 players in the NBA during his college coaching career, including 19 over his first five seasons at Kentucky. The 19 picks over that five-season span is the most of any coach.
In 2010, five of his UK players were selected in the first round for the first time in NBA history. He followed that up with four players in the draft in 2011, six players in 2012 — the most in a two-round draft — two more in 2013, and another two in 2014.
Overall, he’s churned out 19 NBA draft picks, 15 first-rounders, two No. 1 overall selections, five top-five picks and nine lottery selections at Kentucky. Since the 2008 draft, 24 of Coach Cal’s players have been taken in the NBA Draft, including 17 first-rounders. Calipari has produced a top-10 pick in seven straight drafts. No other school has had a first-rounder in each of the last seven drafts.
Included in Calipari’s NBA success are three No. 1 overall picks (Derrick Rose, Wall and Davis) over a five-year period. No other coach has had three No. 1 picks, and 2012 was the first time two players from the same team (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) were taken with the top two picks in the draft.
After bringing the University of Massachusetts basketball program to national prominence in the ‘90s and resurrecting the Memphis basketball program in the 2000s, Calipari became the 22nd coach in UK history and seventh in the last 80 years.
Calipari’s overall on-court record is 635-178 (.781) following his sixth season at UK. He entered the 2014-15 season with the third-highest winning percentage among active NCAA Division I coaches with 10 years of experience at college basketball’s Division I level, trailing only Mark Few and Roy Williams. After opening the 2014-15 campaign with three straight wins, Calipari became the 13th active head coach with 600 wins.
Calipari is one of only two coaches (Williams) in NCAA Division I history to have 400 or more wins in his first 16 years as a head coach, and his 173 victories from 2008-12 are the most ever for a coach over a five-year span in Division I history. Since the 2005-06 season, he has the best winning percentage among all Division I coaches. On the NCAA Division I list for winning percentage for all coaches (minimum 10 years), Calipari entered the 2014-15 season in 10th place and ahead of Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins and Lute Olson.
His nine 30-win seasons are third most for a head coach in NCAA Division I history, and he is the first coach in NCAA Division I history to record five straight on-court 30-win seasons. For his college career (23 years), Calipari has 21 20-win seasons and 14 25-win campaigns. The 21 consecutive 20-win seasons is the second-longest streak in NCAA history, trailing only Dean Smith, who had 27.
His NCAA Tournament record of 47-15 (.758) gives him the second-highest winning percentage among active coaches and the second highest of all-time (minimum 20 games). His six Final Four appearances are tied for fifth most by a coach all-time, and his 11 straight NCAA Tournament wins prior to the 2014 national championship loss was the longest winning streak in the tournament since the Florida Gators won 12 straight in 2006 and 2007.
Coach Cal started his head-coaching career at UMass in 1998, guiding a struggling program to the top of college basketball, capped off by a Final Four appearance in 1996.
At 29, when he was named head coach, Calipari began building a program from the ground up, going 10-18 his first season before posting a 17-14 record his second year (receiving a bid to the NIT). The Minutemen won their first Atlantic 10 championship in 1992 with a 30-5 record, including a 13-3 mark in league play. With a 77-71 overtime win over Syracuse in an East Regional second-round game, UMass made its first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance.
From there, the program skyrocketed under Coach Cal.
Calipari compiled a 193-71 on-court record (.731) during his eight-year career at Massachusetts, including a 108-44 mark (.684) in A-10 play. In addition to five straight NCAA Tournaments and a Final Four appearance in 1996, UMass also made two appearances in the NIT, advancing to the NIT semifinals in 1991. The 1990-91 season was the first of six straight seasons in which the Minutemen won at least 20 games.
In his final season at UMass, Calipari was named the 1996 Naismith National Coach of the Year and The Sporting News National Coach of the Year. He was also named the A-10 Coach of the Year for the third time in four years, as well as Basketball Times East Region Coach of the Year.
During the Minutemen’s 35-2 Final Four season in 1995-96, UMass posted wins over Kentucky, Maryland, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Louisville. UMass ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation in the final regular-season poll after being the top-ranked team for nine weeks earlier in the year. The Minutemen also won their first 26 games of the season, setting a school record for most consecutive wins.
In addition to his Naismith National Coach of the Year honors in 1996, Calipari was a Naismith Coach of the Year finalist in 1994 and 1995. He was the USBWA District I Coach of the Year in 1993.
Calipari left UMass in June of 1996 to become executive vice president of basketball operations and head coach of the New Jersey Nets. He led the Nets to a second-place finish in the NBA’s Atlantic Division and the playoffs in 1998, ending a five-year postseason drought for the franchise. The Nets’ 17-game turnaround from the previous year was the best that season in the NBA.
He became a member of the Philadelphia 76ers coaching staff in 1999, rejoining head coach Larry Brown, for whom Calipari was an assistant at Kansas.
Calipari returned to the college game in 2000 at Memphis, where he led the Tigers to the 2008 NCAA title game. Memphis’ 38 wins in 2007-08 made him the winningest coach for a single season in NCAA history. As a result, Calipari was named Naismith National Coach of the Year for a second time in his career. He is only the second coach to receive the honor multiple times since the award’s inception in 1987. Krzyzewski is the other to do so.
Calipari, the 2009 Sports Illustrated National Coach of the Year, led the Tigers to nine straight 20-win campaigns and nine consecutive postseason appearances, the only Memphis coach to do that. He posted 252 on-court wins — 28.0 wins per season — as the Tigers’ head coach, making him the winningest coach in school history.
Calipari, who is on the board of directors for the NABC, began his coaching career at Kansas as a volunteer assistant under Ted Owens. In 1983, he was hired as the recruiting coordinator at the University of Vermont, but he was swayed back to the nation’s heartland when Brown was hired as head coach at KU. He spent three seasons at Kansas (1982-85) before another three-year stint as an assistant coach to Paul Evans at Pittsburgh (1985-88).
The 56-year-old lettered two years at North Carolina-Wilmington before transferring to Clarion State. He played point guard at Clarion during the 1981 and 1982 seasons, leading the team in assists and free-throw percentage. The Eagles were ranked in the Division II top 20 both years and participated in the 1981 NCAA Division II Tournament.
Calipari’s foundation, The Calipari Foundation, has raised millions of dollars to help the lives of those in need in the Commonwealth and across the country, and in 2010, he used a telethon to raise more than $1 million for victims of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. He followed that up with another telethon in 2012 that raised $1 million for victims of Superstorm Sandy.
A year after helping raise $350,000 for charity during the inaugural UK alumni weekend, Calipari was the driving force behind the more than $1 million that was donated to local and national organizations during the second annual alumni weekend. Despite the absence of the alumni game – a large generator of the alumni weekend funds — in 2014, he and his basketball fantasy experience matched the $1 million the following year.
Calipari’s foundation has also worked with and donated money to Samaritan’s Feet, the West Liberty Recovery Fund, 4 Paws for Ability, the Starkey Hearing Foundation, the Urban League of Lexington and the V Foundation. Calipari has also headed up the EverFi Financial Literacy Program, which teaches students across Kentucky the importance of money management.
Author of the New York Times Best Seller “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out” and “Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life,” Calipari is a master of communication and maximizing talent. He lives by the motto “that it’s never a matter of how far you have fallen, but instead it’s about how high you bounce back.”
Calipari and his wife, Ellen, have two daughters, Erin and Megan, and a son, Bradley.