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Coach Calipari understands ‘luck,’ purpose, the advice mama gave him – and giving back

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Monday, August 20, 2012

As he approaches his fourth season as coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team, John Calipari sounds a lot like the awe-struck, wide-eyed kids who flock to his camps as worshipful followers. And the parents who tag along, hoping to get a noticing nod from the Great One.

He just doesn’t understand how he got so lucky.

He isn’t being coy. He means it.

For a kid from Pittsburgh’s Moon Township whose daddy worked the coal mines and whose grandparents came from the “Old Country” speaking no English, the rarified air of the coach’s office at UK’s Craft Center is still a big deal.

“How could this happen? How could it happen to me?” he says, verbally pinching himself for a reality check. “I wasn’t a great player, I didn’t go to a big school, I didn’t have the greatest coaching career. . .”

And yet, here he is, in arguably the best job in college basketball – with the most devoted fans (or fanatics), with a legacy of great basketball, with a built-in magnet for attracting the best players and with the opportunity to – well, win a national championship in your third year on the job. He gets it: The only place to go from that is to win the next one.

“We didn’t have much growing up,” he says of himself and his siblings, “but our parents had expectations – and that was that we could go to college. We all did, although our parents had only a high school education.”

It’s against that experience that he values education, though his frame of reference for what to do with a college education back then was limited. He thought he’d become a high school teacher because those were his role models.

He recalls what his mama told him: “Don’t let your surroundings define you.”

That meant he couldn’t let himself be defined by the small, modest world in which he grew up but it also means he can’t let himself be defined by the bigger-than-life trappings around the storied head coaching job at the University of Kentucky.

“I am the coach, and that’s my job,” he says, pointing to a big sign painted on his wall, as if he might forget:


“So, yes, I coach basketball, but if that’s all I do, I cheat the position.”

His upbringing, his mama’s advice, the influence of his wife, Ellen, his own values – all these push him to do more than the minimum requirements of the job.

“I’ve been blessed. I want to set an example for giving back.”

And he has big plans for that, big dreams for making a difference, for being part of solutions and for playing a major role in the “village” it takes to change the lives of children who face so many challenges in today’s world.

The kid who had nothing and now has plenty wants to help other kids dream big, to “think beyond their surroundings,” to achieve beyond their own limited expectations.

In Memphis, his family’s last home, he and Ellen established a donor-advised fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis (CFGM). It was, he said, an “easy and clean” way to set aside charitable dollars for the community good, and it allowed the Caliparis to focus on the giving and not on infrastructure or the process or the details of management.

Through the Calipari Family Foundation for Children Fund at the CFGM, they could ask that their charitable donations go to qualified nonprofits, could respond to the CFGM’s recommendations, and could be sure all contributions were reported appropriately and met all legal standards. Primarily, they asked that their funds focus on “children,” in the broadest sense.

In all, Calipari says the family has given a substantial amount through the CFGM fund. The grants have helped do such things as endow scholarships and support churches.

“Ellen and I consider giving a private matter; that is, we don’t give in order to draw attention to ourselves,” he said. “In fact, one of the reasons we have given through the community foundation in Memphis is so we can quietly, anonymously help others.”

However, the Caliparis do sometimes choose to publicize their support of certain causes and organizations about which they are passionate. The reason for doing this, Calipari says, is to raise awareness, to encourage the public also to become active in supporting these same causes and organizations.

Lending their names publicly to charities often helps “move the needle” for those groups – which ultimately means more people will receive assistance.

Perhaps the most public of Calipari’s charitable efforts has been his pledge of $1 million, almost paid in full, to the Memphis Street Ministries a Christian ministry serving impoverished Memphis youth in what is the third poorest zip code in the nation.

Another large CFGM contribution was made to Team Focus, a charity that works with young men (ages 10-18) who don’t have a father figure in their lives. Specifically, the Caliparis’ contribution has aided that group in establishing and maintaining a Lexington Team Focus chapter.

“We look for accountability – and results,” Calipari said. “We want to help make a difference.”

Now, the Caliparis are beginning to think about how they will deal with their philanthropy in the new home they have fully embraced. That doesn’t mean they’ll abandon Memphis – they have special charitable interests there and expect to continue to support them. But their primary philanthropic focus will be Kentucky.

Since moving to Kentucky, they have given through their CFGM fund about $160,000 to various charities that assist Kentuckians. A majority of these groups are geared toward helping children, such as Team Focus, Christ the King School in Lexington and the School Choice Program in Louisville. Other Kentucky nonprofits that have already received support include The Jewish Community Federation of Louisville and the World Food Program USA.

The grants made through CFGM are in addition to contributions they have made from personal funds. These contributions are carefully vetted through Sandy Bell, UK’s compliance officer, to be sure there are no conflicts with NCAA rules.

In addition, he has used his “Coach Cal” bully pulpit to leverage his “sphere of influence” to raise funds through Hoops for Haiti, Kentucky Cares, and a Papa John’s campaign ($1 for every pizza purchased using the “BOUNCE” code) for Children’s Hospital.

In Memphis he used his sphere of influence to assist the Jubilee Schools, eight schools and two urban education initiatives in Memphis, which opened in 1999 and now serves 1300 at-risk students. The Catholic-based schools, open also to non-Catholics and all ethnicities, outperform their counterparts on standardized tests in reading, math and science and provide a values-based environment.

He fully understands the advantage of the “moral authority” of the UK basketball coach.

“About 98 percent of the money to the donor-advised fund was generated personally by me or my family,” Calipari said. This includes monies sent directly to the fund for his speaking engagements or personal appearances.

The first steps have been taken to establish a charitable presence in Kentucky. The Calipari Foundation, Inc. has been registered with the Secretary of State and the next step will be to apply for 501(c)3 status with the IRS – that’s the tax-exempt designation required for public charities and foundations, making contributions to them tax-deductible to the extent defined by law.

Once the charitable status of the Calipari Foundation in Kentucky has been granted, he and Ellen will put some additional definition to its mission, make additions to the board of directors, and finalize the operational structure.

Calipari expects to be aggressive in giving-back – and, at least initially, expects to focus on financial literacy for grade school children, a Catholic schools initiative (similar to Memphis’ Jubilee Schools) – because he believes every child should have the option of a values-based education – and childhood obesity, which he knows is a serious problem in Kentucky.

He will also continue to hold himself accountable for being the right role model for the young men he coaches – young men on track to lucrative professional careers where money can come early and aplenty. He believes he has a responsibility to help them understand the obligation to give back – and to “change the cycle of their lives.” Many of them have come from poverty, he says, and they have a chance to change themselves and their families.

“Life is all about who you are taking with you,” the Coach says, as he glances at those big letters emblazoned prominently on his wall: