- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. | John Calipari thought he’d pop up on Kentucky’s radar two years ago when the Wildcats were looking for Tubby Smith’s replacement and Calipari was coming off a 33-win season at Memphis.

He spent a week constantly asking his wife Ellen if Kentucky’s number had finally popped up on the caller ID.

“I called my wife every day for six days. Did they call? Did they call?” Calipari said. “Then I kind of figured out: They’re not calling.”

Two years and two days later, Calipari’s phone finally rang.

And the Wildcats paid a hefty price for waiting.

Kentucky made Calipari the nation’s highest-paid coach Tuesday, awarding him an eight-year, $31.65 million deal and charging him with restoring some of the luster the program lost during Billy Gillispie’s rocky two-year tenure.

It’s a challenge the charismatic and highly successful Calipari plans to meet head on, though he cautioned he’s no miracle worker.

“I’m not the grand poobah,” he told a packed news conference barely 12 hours after signing the contract. “I’m not the emperor. That’s not what I want to be.”

What the Wildcats need him to be is a winner. That’s never been a problem for Calipari, who has won 445 games and guided both Memphis and UMass to the Final Four. He certainly won his first day on the job at Kentucky, washing away the sting of the university’s bitter divorce of Gillispie.

Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart admits going after Gillispie instead of Calipari in 2007 was “my mistake.”

“I went where I thought I needed to go and I just didn’t get it right,” Barnhart said.

This time he knew he couldn’t afford to get it wrong.

Barnhart wasted little time courting Calipari. They met in Chicago on Sunday along with university president Lee Todd.

“We spent two or three hours just talking,” Todd said. “It was a get-to-know-you session.”

And the start of a whirlwind 48 hours in which the Wildcats made their pitch while Memphis declared it would not be outbid.

Memphis officials said Monday that Kentucky received permission to talk to Calipari, then did everything in their power to hold onto the coach who helped the Tigers elbow their way onto the national stage. Calipari told his players about the Kentucky job because he “didn’t want them to read about it on the ticker.”

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