Calipari: 'I'm a regular guy'

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- John Calipari thought he'd pop up on Kentucky's radar two years ago when the Wildcats were looking for Tubby Smith's replacement and Calipari was coming off a 33-win season at Memphis.

He spent a week constantly asking his wife Ellen if Kentucky's number had finally popped up on the caller ID.

"I called my wife every day for six days. Did they call? Did they call?" Calipari said. "Then I kind of figured out: They're not calling."

Two years and two days later, Calipari's phone finally rang.

And the Wildcats paid a hefty price for waiting.

Kentucky made Calipari the nation's highest-paid coach on Tuesday, awarding him an eight-year, $31.65 million deal and charging him with restoring some of the luster the program lost during Billy Gillispie's rocky two-year tenure.

It's a challenge the charismatic and highly successful Calipari plans to meet head on, though he cautioned he's no miracle worker.

"I'm not the grand poobah," he told a packed news conference barely 12 hours after signing the contract. "I'm not the emperor. That's not what I want to be."

What the Wildcats need him to be is a winner. That's never been a problem for Calipari, who has won 445 games and guided both Memphis and UMass to the Final Four. He certainly won his first day on the job at UK, washing away the sting of the university's bitter divorce of Gillispie.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart admits going after Gillispie instead of Calipari in 2007 was "my mistake."

"I went where I thought I needed to go and I just didn't get it right," Barnhart said.

This time he knew he couldn't afford to get it wrong.

Barnhart wasted little time courting Calipari. They met in Chicago on Sunday along with university president Lee Todd.

"We spent two or three hours just talking," Todd said. "It was a 'Get to know' you session."

And the start of a whirlwind 48 hours in which the Wildcats made their pitch while Memphis declared it would not be outbid.

Memphis officials said Monday that Kentucky received permission to talk to Calipari, then did everything in their power to hold onto the coach who helped the Tigers elbow their way onto the national stage. Calipari told his players about the Kentucky job because he "didn't want them to read about it on the ticker."

While Kentucky officials looked into Calipari's background and contacted NCAA officials to get an idea on how Calipari ran his program, Memphis made one last run at keeping him.

Memphis booster William "Billy' Dunavant, a cotton magnate, met with Calipari on Monday. FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith spoke to Calipari via phone on Monday as well.

Calipari went to mass at Holy Rosary at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, then to Gibson's Donuts around 9:30 a.m.

He called athletic director R.C. Johnson on Tuesday afternoon and told him he was taking the Kentucky job. Calipari then met with the players.

There were tears. How could their not be after nine years? Yet Calipari knew he wouldn't get another opportunity to say yes.

"I didn't want to live a life where I regretted, "Why didn't I do this," to be in the best situation to coach basketball in the country, maybe the world, to coach basketball right here in Lexington," he said.

Memphis held no grudges toward the coach who revitalized the program.

"Our boosters did everything possible to keep John here," Johnson said.

In the end, it wasn't about the money. Calipari knew he was going to get paid either way.

"I would have made more money at Memphis [next year]," he said.

A signed contract was faxed to Kentucky around 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, just before Calipari and his family landed in their new home.

Getting a formal document may have been Calipari's first victory with the Wildcats. Barnhart struggled for two years to get Gillispie to sign a fleshed-out contract, and their inability to reach an agreement was taken as a sign of the communication breakdown between the coach and the administration.

Those days appear to be long gone.

"Something happened in two days we couldn't get done in 2 years [with Gillispie]," Barnhart said. "I'm awfully happy that we're done."

Now comes the hard part: trying to live up to the expectations of a fan base desperate for a return to the nation's elite.

Kentucky went 22-14 last season, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. The program hasn't been to the Final Four in 11 years, the longest drought between national semifinals in school history.

A tireless recruiter, his first recruiting pitch may be to Kentucky stars Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks. Both are weighing whether to head to the NBA. Having one of the nation's most successful coaches could help them change their mind, though neither player was made available to the media on Wednesday.

It's also possible some of his latest recruits will follow him to Lexington.

One of those is DeMarcus Cousins, a 6-foot-11 center from Mobile, Ala., who is ranked No. 4 on ESPNU's top 100. He verbally committed to Memphis earlier this month, but because he has not signed a national letter of intent, he can change his mind and pick another school.

Cousins, in Miami for the McDonald's All-American game, said during a Tuesday news conference that the Wildcats would be an option if Calipari took the job.

"I would consider Kentucky," Cousins said. "I would open it
all the way back up."

The nation's top-ranked high school player, Xavier Henry, a 6-6 guard from Oklahoma City, is not expected to follow Calipari, however. Henry, who also is in Miami for the McDonald's All-American game, told ESPN on Wednesday that his parents already have submitted the paperwork for his release from the national letter of intent he signed with Memphis.

Henry, whose only official visits were to Kansas and Memphis, said he will reopen the recruiting process and consult with his family, adding that he has spoken with Calipari since the hiring announcement.

Whoever plays for UK, Calipari's ultimate goal remains the same.

Eyeing the seven national championship banners inside the glistening $30 million practice facility on Wednesday, Calipari had an idea.

"Let's double these, let's double 'em," he said.

He was kidding. Or was he?

Calipari knows many of the 24,000 fans who pack Rupp Arena each winter -- many of them volunteer assistant coaches -- aren't when they say adding to the banners should be the goal every year.

That's fine. It's one of the reasons he signed on.

"The challenge of being here is [not] competing for national titles, but winning them," Calipari said. "But that's what you buy into when you come here."

And Kentucky has demonstrated its willingness to pay whatever it takes to back to that level.

The deal eclipses the $3.5 million average salary of Florida's Billy Donovan and dwarfs those of Calipari's predecessors.

It'll be worth it if Calipari can survive one of the toughest coaching jobs in sports. It's the one he's always wanted. Finally, he has it: the expectations, the money and the chance to become a part of history.

"They don't put banners up here for anything else except national champions," he said. "That's why you want to coach here. We want to compete every year and hopefully add to this wall."

Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz, ESPN's Quint Kessenich and The Associated Press was used in this report.