John Calipari has had four straight No. 1 recruiting classes at Kentucky, but one legendary Connecticut high school coach still knows one “sore spot” when it comes to Calipari and recruiting.
“When he was a young squirt at Massachusetts, he recruited one of my players (Chris Watts) who was a very good point guard,” said Vito Montelli, the coach for the last 50 years at St. Joseph in Trunbull, Conn. “The kid went for a visit, but John’s staff decided he was too small, too thin and favored another guy. He came back and said, ‘Those guys do not act like they want me.’
Providence and not only starts four years and has a terrific career, but plays in Europe for 13 years. He still has the NIT record for point scored.
“That’s all still a sore spot with John. I don’t like to remind John much about that because we are good friends and he’s had success wherever he’s gone. But he missed out on that one.”
Montelli, 80, has 878 career wins and won his 11th state title this season. He asked Calipari in March if he might speak at the team banquet and when he told Calipari the date was May 9, he found out Calipari was already scheduled to be in New York the night before.
“He said he would do everything he could to be there and he eventually confirmed he would come. That’s the kind of guy he is,” Montelli said. “We have over 300 at our dinner. We’ve never had more than 115 or 120. It was not only kids, but fans. The area people really came out.
“He’s been here before in 1993 and 1996. I asked him in 2007 or 2008 if he could possibly do me a favor and maybe help get me into the Naismith Hall of Fame. I didn’t get in, but he wrote a beautiful letter. That’s the kind of friend he is. I know a number of college coaches and they are all great, but John is right there at the top of the list. He’s the best. Whenever I¿needed something, he’s shown me he’ll be right there and I can count on him. We had one hell of a night.”
Montelli is probably one of the few people — or maybe the only one — to hang up on Calipari during this year’s NCAA Tournament championship run.
"I made a call after the pairings came out and wished him luck, but did not hear back from him. The night before the Final Four I was pulling into my garage coming home from work and my phone rings. I don't recognize the number and it has an 8 on the area code, but I answer it. I said hello and thought it was a crank call, so I hung up on him," Montelli said.
"About 15 or minutes later, I'm in the house with my wife at the kitchen table. The phone rings again, I've got my wife there if it's another crank call. I said hello and he said it's coach Cal and I called you a little while ago. We talked 15 or 20 minutes, but I said, ‘Why the hell are you calling me? You have to worry about Louisville tomorrow.’ He laughed and said he was just returning my call.”
Montelli also had CBS/Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis — Montelli first met him when he was covering high school basketball — and Five Star basketball camp guru Howard Garfinkel at the team banquet.
“John got his start at Five-Star Camp under Howie. So many coaches owe that man,”¿Montelli said. “John picked him up on the way. But that’s how John is. He’s so sincere with you. He doesn’t bullshit you. He did this same thing for me when he was at UMass. He’s always stayed in touch. He does little things for people like me.
“I do not like to impose on people. If he had not called me back, I would not have had him at the dinner because I would not have bothered him again. He does not have to do things like this for a high school coach. Hell, he just won the national championship. He has the pick of the litter about what he wants to do. For him to spend time with a high school coach and his kids, that’s time out of his schedule.
“I love him as a son. I am so happy he came up. He did a great job talking to our kids. Remember, John had been at the White House with the president and then at the Kentucky Derby the next day and then he comes up here to cap a sensational week by saving the best for last.”