NEW ORLEANS – Kentucky coach John Calipari hits the road Friday. This time, he's carrying national championship credentials.
For all his success recruiting players and prepping them for the NBA, the 53-year-old's system of recruiting the very best players and never making excuses about his methods had never paid off with an NCAA title — until now.
Calipari's 'Cats played the brand of basketball he'd preached all season by sharing and creating for each other in a 67-59 victory over Kansas on Monday night for Kentucky's eighth title in school history.
"I told my wife, I'm glad it's done," Calipari said. "Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be, helping young people, you know, create better lives for themselves and their families and also helping them prepare for life after basketball.
"I can get on with that. I don't have to hear the drama. I can just coach now. I don't have to worry. If you want to know the truth, it's almost like, 'Done,' let me move on."
He'd gotten close to a title before. Besides getting to the Final Four last year, he'd reached the semifinals with Massachusetts in 1996 and the championship game with Memphis in '08, both of those results later vacated by the NCAA without implicating him.
After attracting top talent — such as Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose and John Wall — the rub grew that he couldn't win with young players with immediate NBA aspirations.
"It's hard to look back," said Calipari, who's planning to see his daughter in Massachusetts before hitting the road again. "Right now I'm going to have two days, and then I've got to go out recruiting Friday. So you tell me to look back. I'm just looking forward. Let's keep marching."
Since arriving in Lexington in 2009, Calipari has turned in the top-ranked recruiting class each year at his first BCS school, which will pay him $32.7 million to $38.65 million over the next seven years. He had five first-round picks in his first class led by Wall, then had three more reach the pros last season led by Brandon Knight.
"He wanted to take Kentucky back to the mountaintop, and it's a climb to get up there. It's hard. This stuff isn't easy," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "It was not an easy path."
But Calipari reloaded this year with his best class yet.
"I said this a couple of years ago and everybody got crazy when we had five guys drafted in the first round — this is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history," Calipari said. "The reason was, I knew now other kids would look and say, 'You got to go there.' What I'm hoping is there's six first-rounders on this team. We were the first program to have five, let's have six.
"That's why I've got to go recruiting on Friday."
Darius Miller is the only player guaranteed to leave. The holdover from the disastrous Billy Gillispie era earned his way into a starting role before losing it this year to yet another talented freshman. Still, he left his mark with a school-record 152 appearances.
Freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, as well as sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, all have until April 29 to decide about their NBA futures. But for all the criticism that a team this young could never win it all, Kentucky proved them wrong.
"What a lesson for these young people, that if you share, you give up some of yourself for everyone around you, if you care more about your teammates than yourself, it's amazing what you can accomplish," the coach said.
His players love him for his fierce loyalty, especially Jones despite sometimes bearing the brunt of the coach's harshest criticism.
"He gives us so much credit any time we win, and he'll take all the fault if anything goes wrong," Jones said. "Just to win for him is something special."
Calipari said he's never watched the tape of Memphis' 2008 title loss to Kansas or last year's loss to Connecticut in the semifinals. He said he's planning to catch this one again and has one more goal he'd like to reach — a perfect 40-0 season.
"The reason is they say it can't be done," he said. "Well, let's go do it."