LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The crowd at the Merrick Inn is beginning to heighten, much like the pulse of Kentucky basketball. And the reason is the same: John Calipari. He is sitting at a table with eight other people, surrounded mostly by members of his basketball staff, looking at a southern-style menu that is tantalizing him the way his arrival in this state of thoroughbreds has titillated the legion of Big Blue fans that number, oh, only about four or five million.
It is Tuesday night, shortly before 9 p.m., and the reaction to Calipari's presence in the restaurant is the same as it is everywhere in the state, whether it's the governor's mansion in Frankfort, a train stop on the way to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville or at Wheeler Pharmacy, an old-style drug store near the Kentucky campus. People look. They stare. They point. They applaud when he walks into a room. They want his autograph. They stand in line to get a photo with him. Or they merely want to say hello and welcome him to the mad, mad kingdom of college basketball.
The one he has been empowered to rule with the largest contract awarded a college basketball coach.
The one they can't wait for him to resuscitate, a process that, after just one month, already has reaped the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
"There's no one who could come in here with the excitement he has brought -- no one," said former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who knows all about the pressures inherent with Big Blue basketball. All he had to do was succeed the legendary Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, as Kentucky's head coach in 1972. "There's not another coach in the nation who could make this the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and get everyone excited about next year."
Sitting across the table is Billy Wilcoxson, a Lexington accountant who wants to offer the new coach some pertinent advice: Order the southern fried chicken. The opinion is seconded by Luther Deaton Jr., who is sitting next to Wilcoxson. Deaton is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Central Bank in Lexington and a member of the University of Kentucky athletic board of directors.
"Best you'll ever have," Deaton said.
He is right.
When Calipari is finished eating the chicken with the same tenacity he preaches for his dribble-drive offense, he texts a 140-character message on Twitter, telling the rapidly swelling number of people who have signed up for his networking service about the fried chicken at The Merrick Inn. Calipari has been twittering for only a short period, since replacing Billy Gillispie as head coach, and the response from the Kentucky basketball faithful has been staggering, growing by the thousands not just daily, but hourly.
In two months, Calipari has 172,000 followers on Twitter, already the largest of any college coach or college program in the country.
"These people are nuts," Calipari said. "In four days, I got 10,000 [subscribers]. I wrote them, 'You people are crazy. I love it.' "
It has been a long time since Kentucky felt this way about its basketball program. And its coach.
"He's already brought us back," Deaton said. "We had lost our brand. The day he inked his contract was the day we brought our brand back. They could have brought Pitino back, and he couldn't touch it like this."
The season is still six months away.
It is a long way from the house at 888 Beaver Grade Road in Moon to, arguably, the greatest program in college basketball. But that is where it began for John Calipari, and this is where he has landed.
In the land where Rick Pitino once ruled and his shadow can still be felt 55 miles away in Louisville, Calipari has charged into town, fresh off four consecutive 30-win seasons at Memphis, and already electrified a program that hasn't made it to the Final Four in 11 years (a school-record drought) and, worse, failed to make the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1991.
At age 50, he has ascended to the one program he long desired to oversee, a program whose fan base encompasses the entire state, border to border, and whose passion runs deeper than perhaps any other college sports program in the country. Kentucky is to college basketball what Notre Dame is to college football -- storied, tradition-rich, mystical. Or, as Calipari said, "Always one season away from where you were."
"I was here for like two days, it's about 11:30 at night, and I looked out our window [in the office] and I see those banners hanging in the gym, and I go to Robes, 'We're at Kentucky.' " Calipari said, referring to his assistant coach, John Robic, a 1981 North Hills High School graduate. "Two kids from Pittsburgh and we're at Kentucky. We busted out laughing."
But, make no mistake, after 18 seasons as a head coach in college basketball, after winning 445 games and leading two programs to Final Four appearances, Calipari is not daunted by any job, not even Kentucky.
"If I were 35. I'd probably feel overwhelmed," Calipari said. "But, look, we're moving so fast right now to catch up, to tie up loose ends, you don't have time to think about where you are. I'm not intimidated by it. I'm humbled I'm here. I'm ecstatic getting a chance to coach in a program like this. But I'm not feeling like, Wow."
No, that is the reaction of everyone else about Calipari, a former Pitt assistant who played basketball at Moon High School and Clarion University.
He has already put together one of the best recruiting classes in the country with the signings of centers DeMarcus Cousins (LeFlore, Ala.) and Daniel Orton (Bishop McGuinness, Okla.), two of the top four centers in the nation; hot-shot point guard Eric Bledsoe (Parker, Ala.) and forward Jon Hood (Madisonville North Hopkins, Ky.). Last month, he landed the prize of his class -- 6-foot-4 John Wall of Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C., the nation's top point-guard prospect.
What's more, at least one Kentucky player who announced he was entering the NBA draft -- forward Patrick Patterson -- has changed his mind and will return to play for Calipari. They are waiting to see if guard Jodie Meeks, who also declared for the draft, will do the same.
If he does, it's possible Kentucky could be ranked the No. 1 team in the country, before Calipari coaches a game.
"You need someone at Kentucky who embraces the magnitude of the job, and John embraces that," said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "It's a very important part of the job at Kentucky. It's a very unique place and it takes a unique individual to put the pieces together."
Two years ago, Barnhart ignored the opportunity to hire Calipari when he selected Gillispie, from Texas A&M, to replace Tubby Smith as head coach. But, after two rocky seasons in which the program and Gillispie seemed to spin out of control, Barnhart admits he made a mistake.
"I went where I thought I needed to go and I just didn't get it right," he said.
This time, he thinks he did.
Before he hired Calipari, Barnhart and Kentucky president Lee Todd did a background check on their new coach with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, making sure they were thorough and "exercised due diligence" to investigate their new employee.
In that process, they became aware of the NCAA's investigation into the University of Memphis basketball program, an investigation that centered on whether a former player -- believed to be star guard Derek Rose -- had cheated on his Scholastic Aptitude Test by having another person take the exam for him. The investigation also is looking into whether the university failed to monitor the travel expenses of an associate of a Memphis player, who was allowed to make some trips on the team's charter without paying total costs of $2,260.
Barnhart and Todd were assured Calipari was not "at risk" in the investigation, meaning the NCAA was not investigating him. Calipari even cooperated with the NCAA during a hearing last Saturday in Indianapolis, answering questions via conference call even though he was in China conducting a week-long basketball clinic.
"Coach Calipari fully and completely cooperated with the NCAA enforcement staff regarding the allegations involving the University of Memphis," said Pittsburgh attorney C. James Zeszutek, managing partner of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, Downtown, who represented Calipari at the hearing. "At no time was Coach Calipari a person 'at risk' with regard to allegations made concerning the University of Memphis."
Barnhart and Todd are satisfied with the process, none of which has done anything to dampen Calipari's arrival in town.
"Not at all," said Hall, who is part of the radio broadcast team for Kentucky basketball and does a weekly radio show in Lexington. "They're not concerned. It's really not relative to him, personally. As a coach, you don't really want to get blamed for a situation that your player got involved in. If a kid wants to cheat on an entrance exam, you can't keep him from doing that, especially if he's back in his own town. You can't control your own children sometimes, what they do when you're not around."
It is 11 a.m and Calipari is holding a news conference in the media room in the lower level of the Joe Craft Center, the $30 million office and practice facility that was opened in 2006 and connects to Memorial Coliseum, the arena where Rupp coached for 42 seasons and won four national titles. It is Calipari's first session with the local media since he was named coach March 31.
Even though the season does not start for nearly six more months, the news conference is such an event it is televised live by one of the Lexington stations.
Calipari does not disappoint. He tells them of his interest in scheduling neutral-site games in Louisville, Indianapolis and even Nashville, Tenn., where each school would split the tickets; expounds on his desire to have Big Blue Madness at Commonwealth Stadium, the university's football facility, so 70,000 can attend the opening practice; and gives them a lesson on how the Ratings Percentage Index, the system used to help determine NCAA Tournament seeding, really works.
At one point, though, Calipari reminds them he is not a coach who will watch game film till the wee hours of the morning, or sleep overnight on a couch in his office.
"You might see my light on," Calipari said. "But I'm not in there."
Afterward, walking back through the maze of hallways to his office, Calipari is reminded that Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, left his office most nights by 7 p.m. during the regular season.
"I'm going to have to remember that," Calipari said, smiling.
Wheeler Pharmacy is on Romany Road in Lexington, less than 2 miles from campus, a throwback drug store replete with an old-fashioned soda fountain and lunch counter in the back. Most mornings, the counter is filled with 12 to 14 people whom Joe. B. Hall refers to as "sports-minded people who are very much into University of Kentucky sports. And they're very knowledgeable."
Hall, the man who succeeded Adolph Rupp, should know. He is one of them.
Most conversations seem to center on Kentucky basketball, especially in the six weeks since Calipari was hired. The talk spiked on a recent Thursday morning when, to their surprise, Calipari himself walked into Wheeler's at 9 a.m. to meet the group.
"He is extremely well-prepared for any situation he finds himself in," said Hall, who played at Kentucky and was an assistant for seven seasons on Rupp's staff before succeeding the Baron of the Bluegrass as head coach in 1972. "He doesn't just go in somewhere without a plan or an organized thought. He touches all the right buttons. He has the ability to steal the show."
And he is doing it at the right time. Kentucky was 24-11 last season in Gillispie's second season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
"He has just stunned the people here in Kentucky, Hall said. "He has won everyone over."
It is that way everywhere he goes.
When he walks into Qdoba, a Mexican restaurant across the street from his office, three women at a table applaud. A waitress sheepishly asks for his autograph.
He is their savior, brought in to resuscitate a program that has more career victories than any college basketball program in the country (1,988), just four more than North Carolina. Only UCLA (11) has won more national championships than Kentucky (7), though the Wildcats haven't won a national title since 1998.
"And believe me, these people know," Calipari said. "They also know you have to get to 2,000 [victories] before North Carolina. We have to win 12 [games] before they win 16. All that stuff is circled. These people, they know numbers. They take great pride in this program.
"We had 56 straight sellouts at UMass. We had a building that seats 19,000 in Memphis. We've had the proverbial gun to my temple most of my career. The expectations have been high, just like they are here. This, though, takes all that to another level, and mainly it's because of those banners you see. They don't hang banners here for anything other than a national championship."
Calipari's book, "Bounce Back", is coming out in September. It is about his life, his ability to come back after being fired by the NBA's New York Nets. But it is also what he hopes will happen to the University of Kentucky.
Orlando Antigua is not the first person named "Orlando" to be on the coaching staff at Kentucky. That distinction belongs to Orlando "Tubby" Smith, who succeeded Pitino as head coach in 1998 and led the Wildcats to the national title in his first season.
Antigua, though, feels just as charmed.
After spending six seasons learning the coaching profession at Pitt -- four as director of basketball operations, two as an assistant under Jamie Dixon -- he is moving in the fast lane. Less than two years after he left Pitt, Antigua is one of three assistant coaches Calipari brought with him from Memphis, along with Robic, 45, and former DePaul guard Rod Strickland, who played 17 seasons in the NBA.
Curiously, Antigua was a freshman forward on the 1991 Pitt team that came to Lexington and upset Kentucky in the preseason NIT. Now he has come full cycle and has Calipari to thank.
"Because of his personal skills and communication skills, he doesn't get nearly enough credit for his basketball skills," Antigua said. "Similar things were said about Phil Jackson, but there's an art to dealing with really talented players. Not everybody can do it. He's as smart as they come."
Robic would concur. A North Hills High School graduate, he has been an assistant with Calipari for 13 seasons -- eight at Massachusetts, four at Memphis, now Kentucky. When he was fired as head coach at Youngstown State in 2005, Robic got a call the next day from Calipari.
"He said, 'I got you; you're coming to Memphis with me,' " Robic said. "There was no hesitation whatsoever. He's one of the most loyal human beings ever."
Robic is one of nine people from the basketball department whom Calipari brought with him from Memphis. He even brought his secretary, Lunetha Parker, who worked at Memphis before Calipari arrived in 2000.
"I always told him, I always wanted to see him one time at a BCS school," Robic said. "Not only at a BCS school, but at the highest level as far as basketball goes. I think he's just going to flourish here."
It's Wednesday night, about 9:30, and Calipari is sitting at Carrabba's, an Italian restaurant in Hamburg, still sending tweets. The number of free subscribers has now swelled to 28,000, up 3,000 from that morning and more than 7,000 from just the night before. He has flung his tie over his shoulder, hoping to keep the sauce from his bowl of pasta off the fabric. It is the only tie he brought with him from Memphis, which, for Calipari, a clothes monger, is like Jesse James going into a bank with one pistol.
Two hours earlier, he was attending a reception for him at the mansion of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear in Frankfort, about 40 minutes away. The reception was supposed to be for 25 people. Instead, more than 200 showed up. One by one, they all posed for a picture with Calipari, the leader of their beloved Blue, as though they were in line to meet Mickey Mouse at Disney World.
"Two hundred photos," said Antigua, who, along with Robic, accompanied Calipari to the reception. "Imagine."
The greetings, the handshakes, never stop. One of the managers at Carrabba's stops at the table to introduce himself. So does another. Shortly thereafter, a sampling of desserts arrives at Calipari's table. It is after 10:15 p.m. Calipari decides to go one-on-one with tiramisu.
It has been a long day.
"I wished the season started tomorrow," he said, walking toward his SUV. The Cadillac Escalade he is driving is equipped with a Global Positioning System that Calipari relies on to make his way through his new town. He does not need GPS to know where he wants to take Kentucky basketball.
"I'm ready to go; I can't wait," Calipari said. "This is going to be a lot of fun. This isn't life or death."
He might be the only person in the state of Kentucky who thinks that.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com . First Published June 14, 2009 4:00 AM