From Bluegrass to no grass, Calipari remembers his Clarion roots

He was a big part of the glory days of Clarion University basketball, and now he is creating the current glory days at the University of Kentucky.

John Calipari has the chance to do something that hasn’t been done since 1976.

The 38-0 Kentucky Wildcats are two wins away from becoming the first team since that Indiana Hoosier team to have a perfect season.

It would also be Kentucky’s second national championship in four years.

Calipari’s successful coaching career at the Division I level all started with a strong basketball foundation built right here at Clarion University, then Clarion State College.

After transferring from UNC-Wilmington, Calipari was a member of the men’s team in his final two years of college, graduating in 1982.

When Calipari graduated from Moon Area High School as a point guard, all he wanted to do was play, and do so at the Division I level.

But after losing playing time at point guard to teammate Barry Taylor, he wanted to make a change.

That’s when he came back to his home roots where he would have a successful two year career, averaging 4.4 points per game, dishing out 192 assists and 51 steals.

Clarion went 39-17 during that time, including an appearance in the 1981 NCAA Division II Tournament.

Clarion was also ranked third in all of Division II.

What was always preached about Calipari was how smart of a player he was.

“He wasn’t our best player, but he was our smartest player,” said Joe DeGregorio, Clarion’s head coach at the time.

Calipari was also remembered by how he conducted himself in every practice, something he emphasizes today as one of the top coaches in all of college basketball.

John Calipari (far right) poses for a picture when Kentucky hosted Clarion men’s basketball at Rupp Arena.

It started back in his UNC-Wilmington days battling for playing time with Taylor, but carried it to Clarion, pushing his teammates and expects the same from his current players.

“He came to work everyday, practice was our job,” said Joe Malis, a Clarion teammate of Calipari.

“I watched his Kentucky practices, and he expects his kids to work hard in practice to prepare for the game, making them do things the right way under the pressures of the game, and pushes them hard.”

Seeing both of these characteristics, DeGregorio could tell right away Calipari would be a great head coach.

“As soon as he walked on that campus I knew he was going to be the head coach at Kentucky and be a billionaire.”

But even as a coach, Calipari worked hard for everything he currently has, starting out as an assistant.

Some of his stints as an assistant included being on the coaching staff at the University of Pittsburgh with DeGregorio and at the University of Kansas under Larry Brown.

He then became head coach at the University of Massachusetts, then Memphis University and now Kentucky.

Calipari also reached the NBA level briefly.

“John has always had the proper attitude to get whatever job he’s had,” DeGregorio said.

Through all his success, Calipari has always remembered his Clarion days that got him started, and has continued to give back to the basketball program and the Clarion community.

He always invites his former coaches and teammates to visit him at Kentucky for games and watch practices, and even to just go to dinner and hang out.

Calipari made room in his busy schedule to visit his former high school coach at Moon Area, Bill Sacco, in the hospital.

“It’s kind of hard to believe you’re laying in the hospital and all of a sudden you look up and John’s there and you’re thinking doesn’t he have practice or something?” Sacco recalled.

“He should’ve been at practice but he thought he should’ve been there and that meant a heck of a lot to me.”

And when Calipari visits with his teammates, its always feels like old times.

“When were there (at Kentucky) we see him as our teammate from college,” Malis said.

“We have our inside jokes, we tease each other, and we fall back into our college routine. We realize just how special our time was at Clarion University. It provided great memories for all of us.”

Now John Calipari hopes to make a memory the sports world will remember.

But no matter what happens, he will always remember his Clarion days.

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