LEXINGTON, Ky. - Coach John Calipari has held college basketball's highest-profile job for a few months, and he has yet to coach the first regular-season game. But he has attracted nearly a million followers on Twitter, more than 64,000 friends on Facebook, and legions more who expect Kentucky to win its eighth national championship this season.
Few seem the least bit concerned that Calipari coached two other men's programs to the Final Four (Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008), and their results were later removed from the record book because of rules violations.
The marriage of Kentucky and Calipari is the dominant story line of the season. Nowhere else has all that is adored about college sports (fan loyalty, tradition and pageantry) intersected with so much that is criticized (high-salaried coaches, rule-bending and pressure to win now).
Calipari's arrival has not tempered enthusiasm or squelched expectations across Kentucky, from Paducah to Pikeville. Quite the contrary.
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"We've got seven," the university's president, Lee T. Todd Jr., said. "We want more. And we want them to stick. And he wants them to stick, probably more than anyone else."
Kentucky, with a history of its own rules violations, missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in 18 years, then fired coach Billy Gillispie after two seasons. Calipari was given an eight-year contract that will pay him $3.7 million this season, making him the country's highest-paid men's basketball coach. He quickly assembled the top-ranked recruiting class.
Todd and athletics director Mitch Barnhart noted that Calipari was not directly implicated in the NCAA investigations at Massachusetts and Memphis, which appealed the sanctions. They cited Calipari's strong record of graduating players. They say they are confident in the structure they have in place, including the compliance office and a "should have known" clause in all head-coaching contracts that allows Todd to fire coaches without pay for rules violations.
Not least, they are bolstered by strong recommendations from the athletics directors at Calipari's previous stops.
"It sounds like a Rotary Club speech, and I don't mean it to," said Memphis AD R.C. Johnson, who hired Calipari in 2000. "Our kids graduated, we raised a lot of money, we sold a lot of tickets, and I think we had a lot of success and a lot of fun. I think it was well worth it."
Calipari, a 50-year-old with a full swoosh of slicked-back dark hair, has increased excitement and expectations to levels not felt since Kentucky won its last national championship in 1998.
"What I've always tried to do is undersell and overdeliver," Calipari said. "It's a little bit harder here."
Detractors have chased him throughout his career, but they are hard to find in Kentucky.
"I was thrilled to death," said 81-year-old Bob Wiggins, who has had season tickets to Kentucky games since 1954, when Adolph Rupp was simply a championship coach, not the namesake of the team's 23,000-seat arena. "We couldn't have gotten a better coach."
The program's history of rules run-ins include a point-shaving scandal from the 1948-49 season under Rupp and recruiting violations and academic fraud under Coach Eddie Sutton in the late 1980s.
Two months ago, Kentucky admitted to secondary violations involving an administrative assistant. And the prize freshman recruit John Wall, a point guard expected to jump to the NBA next year, was suspended for Friday's season opener and forced to pay nearly $800 for expenses incurred during unofficial visits to several universities with an agent.
Still, Calipari's hiring brought no serious protests from fans, faculty, sponsors or others with an interest in upholding Kentucky's reputation.
"Anything that's there," the radio play-by-play announcer Tom Leach said of negativity, "is drowned out by what people think is going to unfold this season."