By LARRY VAUGHT
Whenever ESPN analyst Dick Vitale hears complaints about Kentucky coach John Calipari “only winning one national championship” he has the same thought.
“John has done a fantastic job at Kentucky,” said Vitale. “What he has done with the Kentucky program is amazing. He provides tremendous talent with kids who compete and battle for championships every year.”
Calipari has a 330-77 mark — an 81.1 percent winning percentage — since coming to UK for the 2009-10 season and is 151-41 in Southeastern Conference play. Kentucky won the 2012 national title and went to the Final Four in 2011, 2014 and 2015. Calipari was also inducted in to the Basketball Hal of Fame in 2015.
“Anybody who wants to criticize Calipari is wacky,” Vitale said. “He is worth every dollar he is paid and more. Just look at the PR (public relations) value, unbelievable exposure. It has been incredible.
“Not many guys can handle being coach at Kentucky. He and Rick Pitino were the only two that could handle it. Expectations are unreal but they can deal with that. Calipari is fantastic.”
However, Vitale did issue one warning about the upcoming season.
“This year if they play, this conference is loaded,” Vitale said. “From top to bottom, there are no cupcakes. Not even for Kentucky. The SEC is flat loaded and it is going to be brutal for any team to win..”
One reason Vitale likes Calipari is his work ethic.
“The only place you will find success ahead of work is in the dictionary,” Vitale said.
Vitale graduated from Seton Hall with a business degree but became an elementary school teacher in Garfield, N.J. He was coaching basketball, baseball and football.
“I knew nothing about football but I know how to read the scorecard and we didn’t lose a game,” Vitale said. “I decided to specialize in basketball and my former principal was the superintendent and said, ‘Richie, come back and coach our basketball team.’ But the only reason I got the job was that nobody else wanted it. We had a 60 by 40 (foot) gym to practice in. It was a football school but we won two state titles my last two years.”
Vitale eventually became head coach at the University of Detroit and then the Detroit Pistons for one season. For the last 41 years he’s been with ESPN.
“I might be 81, but I act 12,” Vitale joked. “I love being with young people. My mother and father had fifth-grade educations but had a doctorate of love. I lost my eye at age 4 or 5 due to an accident with a pencil and my mom said it was no big deal and I could still succeed.
“I am in 14 Hall of Fames and I can’t run or shoot and have a body by lasagna. But I have passion. I have unbelievable pride in myself. If you don’t care about yourself, who will care. You have to make good decisions in your personal life. I tell young kids all the time, you cannot win if you play the drug and alcohol scene. Don’t get addicted.”
Vitale recently wrote a book, “The Lost Season,” speculating on what might have happened if there had been a 2020 NCAA Tournament. He had UK being ousted in the Sweet 16 by Seton Hall.
“I could not pick against my alma mater,” Vitale said.
He’s not ready to speculate on how Kentucky, or any team, might do in whatever the upcoming season turns out to be like. Instead, he has one wish.
“I hope and pray we have March Madness,” Vitale said. “I think we will. I hope we will. It has been great at least watching NBA and we need March Madness for everyone’s sake.”