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Players-first approach adds memorable chapter to UK lore

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John Calipari won his first national championship as a head coach with a 67-59 victory over Kansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari won his first national championship as a head coach with a 67-59 victory over Kansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NEW ORLEANS -- John Calipari never promised this day would come.

When he was officially announced as Kentucky's seventh men's basketball coach in eight decades, Coach Cal marveled at the walls of the Joe Craft Center practice gym, where banners are raised for national championships and national championships alone. Calipari had been working to land a job where that level of greatness is demanded since he took a volunteer coaching/food serving position with Kansas in 1983.

He knew his success would ultimately be measured by whether he could bring home the school's first crown since 1998, but he believed the only way to do it was to focus on the young men he brought in to wear the Blue and White.

"As a basketball coach, I don't make a whole lot of promises -- never have," Calipari said at his introductory press conference. "But we make commitments. The commitment being, this will be about players first. I know how big this program is. But it's only big because of the players who have gone through here. This program will be about players first."

Coach Cal's players-first mantra has been parsed and criticized from all angles, but he hasn't relented since the moment he became coach. He maintained all along that, with a focus on helping them achieve their dreams, the players would drag everyone involved with the program where they wanted to be.

It's hard to argue with him now.

Those players did just what Calipari predicted they would, bringing home the school's eighth national championship and first since 1998 with a 67-59 win over Kansas.

"We were the best team in the nation," Calipari said. "We were the best team, the most efficient team. We shared the ball. I've wanted that. I told them I wanted this one to be for the ages."

The victory capped a dream 2011-12 season that saw the Wildcats blitz through their schedule with just two losses against an NCAA record-tying 38 wins. The last of those triumphs touched off a raucous celebration in both the Big Easy and the Bluegrass.

"The fans, the Big Blue Nation, all the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we did this for them too," Calipari said. "We know what it means to them."

Since taking over a program that three years ago saw its season end quietly with an NIT loss, Calipari has led the Cats to progressively better finishes. The turnaround he's authored carried him to an approval rating any elected official would drool over.

The closest he's come to being it hot water with the UK faithful was a comment he made after the 2010 NBA Draft, when five Wildcats were taken in the first round. To paraphrase, Coach Cal called it the biggest day in the history of Kentucky basketball, a notion many deemed ludicrous. At its core, the remark summed up perfectly what it means to be a players-first program.

"I said this a couple years ago and everybody got crazy when we had five guys drafted in the first round," Calipari said. "This is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest, in Kentucky history.  The reason was, I knew now other kids would look and say, 'You got to go there.' "

Only now is everyone coming to understand what he was talking about.

By lifting his players up to the tune of nine NBA draft picks in the last two seasons, Calipari paved the way for what is now inarguably the best recruiting class of the three top-rated ones UK has raked in beginning in 2009. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague recognized what was being built in Lexington, came aboard and meshed impeccably with a group of returning talent to deliver Coach Cal his long-awaited first title.

"For us as players who play for him, it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit anytime we win and he'll take all the fault if anything goes wrong," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "Just to win for him is something special."

The symmetry is unmistakable. Calipari, the coach who does all for his players, has players who wanted to do all for him.

Calipari isn't about to change his stripes though, which was apparent from the moment the title had been salted away. Stepping to the podium to accept the championship trophy, Calipari had mere minutes to absorb what had just transpired. In addressing the thousands still reveling in the Superdome stands, Coach Cal's first public thoughts were about the two sets of constituents he has set out to serve from his first day on the job.

"This is about these 13 players," Calipari said. "This is about the Big Blue Nation."

The public narrative has long held that the only thing missing from his resume is a title, but Coach Cal didn't sound like a man who thought he had just had the crowning moment of his career. He sounded like a man who had just lifted a burden off his shoulders that was put there by anyone but him.

"I'm glad it's done," Calipari said. "Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best they can be, helping young people, you know, create better lives for themselves and their families, and also helping them prepare for life after basketball."

Many will describe this title as vindication for Calipari, but he didn't really feel like he needed to be vindicated anyway.

"I don't feel any different," Calipari said. "I'm not going to change who I am. I'm here for these young people and they know that."

At this point, it's hard to imagine any person associated with UK -- player, fan or anyone else -- wanting Coach Cal to change now.

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