The coronation began with a handshake from an old rival, a man who had topped him in the same stage just four years ago.
Kentucky coach John Calipari had finally won a national title, thanks to a 67-59 victory Monday against Kansas, and as he shook Bill Self’s hand — the coach who toppled his Memphis Tigers in 2008 final — the confetti rained down. If the moment wasn’t real yet to Calipari, it surely became real then, right?
In the aftermath of the victory, the culmination of Calipari’s 20-year coaching career, the coach was not emotional, and he was not particularly reflective. He was happy, he said, but he was happy for his kids, not for himself.
“This is about them,” Calipari said. “It’s not about me.”
But for all the time he spent downplaying the moment (and he spent plenty), Calipari did convey a certain amount of relief. Forget the fact that two other times he reached the Final Four — at Memphis and Massachusetts — those appearances were later vacated due to NCAA violations, Calipari has also drawn his fair share of criticism for his penchant for recruiting one-and-done players.
But with Monday’s win, no longer would Calipari have to answer questions about any of that. He can just coach now, without the monkey on his back, sort to speak.
“I don’t feel any different, and I’m not going to feel any different,” Calipari said. “I’m going to go to mass in the morning, and I’m going to be the same guy. It’s over now, and I can get about the business of coaching young people.”
So yes, on this night, any satisfaction Calipari had would be largely hidden. But there were subtle signs that it meant more to him than he was letting on. The enthusiastic way he hugged his coaches. The way he climbed the ladder and took a few extra moments to wave to the crowd before he cut down the nets. The way he grinned while “One Shining Moment” played on the Superdome big screens.
This was the pinnacle for Calipari, and fans of the coach, like former Bulls guard and television analyst Steve Kerr, were happy for him.
“He’s a controversial figure, but with the rules being what they are, he’s developed a niche and he does it better than anybody,” Kerr said. “He did a phenomenal job this year.”
And his players, six of whom are considered to be potential first-round NBA draft picks, share Kerr’s enthusiasm.
“For us as players, who played for him, it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit when we win, and he takes all the fall when we lose,” said sophomore forward Terrence Jones.
Sophomore guard Doron Lamb echoed the sentiment.
“Means a lot, coach Cal,” Lamb said. “His third year at Kentucky, he finally won. I’m so happy to win it for him.”
And while some will speculate that it could be time for an ambitious career man like Calipari to move on (though he tried and failed once at the NBA) Kerr said Calipari should stay right where he is.
“Because he can stay at Kentucky as long as he wants, he’ll get the best players and the fans will love him,” Kerr said.
The good news, at least for Kentucky fans, is that Calipari suggested to ESPN’s Andy Katz afterward that there’s still more he’d like to accomplish at the college level.
“Before I’m done coaching, I would like to coach an undefeated team,” Calipari said. “Why? Because it (supposedly) can’t be done.”
And it appears Calipari will be getting to work on that shortly. With the majority of this team expected to bolt for the NBA, he’s already working on putting together the next great class.
“Right now, I’m going to have two days,” Calipari said, “then I’ve got to go our recruiting Friday. So you to tell me to look back, I’m just looking forward.”