Dick Vitale has not been surprised that John Calipari has been such a good coaching fit for the Kentucky basketball program.
“Not many guys can handle that job. John is one I thought could, and he has,” Vitale said.
“My wife pointed out that she could see the warmth of relationships between the players and coach with the way they hugged and were shaking hands,” Vitale said. “She said that told her he built strong relationships with his players. It was so great seeing Anthony (Davis), Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), Demarcus (Cousins), Wayne (Turner), Derek (Anderson) and all those other guys interacting with Calipari.”
However, Vitale has had to admit he was wrong about one thing.
“I didn’t believe he could win a national championship with a steady flow of personnel changes, and even told him that,” the ESPN analyst said. “It slaps in the face of everything you talk about being in rhythm and having familiarity in putting together and efficient team together. What he has done is such an unbelievable compliment to his teaching skills. It tells me he can teach, blend a unit together.
“Heck, he’s already coaching this team, and the season has not even started. I am doing the first two games (on ESPN against Maryland and Duke), and he is already convincing everyone that they might be 0-2 but to look at the bottom line at the end of the year. It’s part of his psychological makeup. No way he believes in his heart they will be 0-2.”
Vitale could see Kentucky back in the Final Four, too, despite losing the top six players off last year’s championship team.
“They will be talented, but last year they had three quality players (Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones) that had been to the Final Four. This year’s team does not have that luxury,” he said. “This year’s freshmen don’t have what last year’s group did with the veterans. (Nerlens) Noel has got to be the man right from the start. That could be a problem early, but when you are looking at what might be by the season’s end, then Kentucky could be right there.”
Vitale said he enjoyed getting a chance to speak to the fantasy campers and was impressed with the way Calipari conducted the camp.
“Everything he does right now is done first class. I admire his generosity and the way he extends his hand to help people should be applauded,” he said. “Critics always will have something negative to say, but look at the positives. He’s been unbelievable. I’m not amazed at the recruiting job he’s done at Kentucky. I watched what he did at UMass. With what he has now, he will get his share of players.
“The thing that has impressed me and what means a lot to me is he is a friend and he hasn’t changed in terms of his passion and love for people. That’s unique and special. I had a great time at his camp.”
He said the campers “brought me to tears” with standing ovations during his talk.
Vitale had been to a Tampa, Fla., fundraiser the night before for pediatric cancer and shared a story about a young girl who found out on Christmas Eve she had leukemia and a story about another girl getting ready to start her high school senior season when she learned her cancer had returned.
“It meant a lot to me to go anywhere I could raise money for pediatric cancer,” said Vitale, who received a $25,000 check from the camp for pediatric cancer that will go toward his annual goal of raising $1 million — a goal he shattered last year by raising $2.1 million.
“I am 73, and the campers said I had the energy of a 12 year old,” Vitale laughed and said. “I take that as a big compliment. The last chapter of my life, I want to give back more. I’m in 11 hall of fames, but you can’t get in without people being good to you.
“I told the campers two things I learned from my mother and father, who had fifth-grade educations: Never believe in can’t, and the second one is be good to people and they will be good to you,” Vitale said. “I cannot satisfy everybody, but I try not to hurt anybody. I get amazed when I read comments that ‘he hates Kentucky because he says they were wrong for firing Tubby (Smith).’ That is so ridiculous. I love basketball, and how can you not love what transpires at Rupp Arena? Most UK fans are terrific.”