LEXINGTON, Ky. – Joe DeGregorio wasn’t sure if John Calipari would get into coaching, but he was certain his scrappy Clarion State point guard would make it big in something.
Renting a trailer during his days at the Division II school, Calipari “realized he could buy a trailer and rent it to his fellow students,” DeGregorio, his coach at the time, remembers. “So he found a lady that was selling trailers down in Frogtown, Pa., and he bought one or two and rented them out. John was making money while he was in college. So no matter what John Calipari did, I knew he was going to be successful.”
Turns out, he did get into coaching, and last summer he got into the Naismith Hall of Fame. He led Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky to Final Fours, winning the 2012 national championship with the Wildcats. And on Sunday, he’ll host his alma mater at Rupp Arena in the first exhibition game for his latest championship contender.
DeGregorio and Calipari’s high school coach Bill Sacco, another Clarion alum, will be there.
These days, not many people could get away with calling Kentucky’s coach “that little stinker,” but DeGregorio can. He recruited him as a high school player in Moon Township, Pa., and was disappointed when Calipari wanted to give Division I ball a shot at UNC-Wilmington – but was delighted a year and a half later when Sacco called.
“He said he had a point guard for me. I said, ‘If it’s Calipari, I’ll take him,’” DeGregorio told SEC Country. “There used to be a saying that point guards were a dime a dozen, but point guards that know what they’re doing are not a dime a dozen. John was one of those kind of guys. He wasn’t my best player, but he was our smartest player, because if we had to get the ball to a certain person in a certain situation, John could do that. If you left him alone, he could also hit shots.
“He was just a very savvy basketball player, I think because he put a lot of time in. He would go into his high school gym after hours – snuck into the gym – and he was always doing something with a basketball. That was his thing.”
DeGregorio marvels at the trappings of Calipari’s current gig, his $8 million salary and access to private jets for recruiting, everything that comes with being the “gold standard” of college basketball. On the rare occasion Clarion left the state of Pennsylvania back in his playing days, they traveled by van.
One trip, there was too much luggage and DeGregorio had to drive his own car.
“John doesn’t have to worry about those things now,” he said. “He’s living the American dream, and I’m very proud of him. He worked for everything he got. John came up the way you’re supposed to come up – hard-working family, dad’s a great guy, mom was a wonderful lady – and no matter where he’s gone, he’s done extremely well.
“One thing John’s not afraid of his work. He’s unrelenting. Think about what he did at UMass, with not the greatest players in America. Matter of fact, two of them were from Puerto Rico, I think, and a couple kids from Western Pennsylvania, and they went to the Final Four.”
DeGregorio believes Calipari learned some of his fundamental principles during his playing days at Clarion, at least one of which might sound familiar to Kentucky fans.
“Players come first,” his old coach said. “I remember having the team over to the house for my wife’s cooking, making sure they went to class, whatever it took to help them be better young men. I think John took a lot of that with him.”
But one time, DeGregorio didn’t take Calipari with him. The point guard missed Clarion’s team bus to a shoot-around before an important game. They were ranked fifth in the country at the time.
“We had four or five guys to a room and he claimed he was last in the shower,” DeGregorio said. “So I sat him on the bench, being an old Marine and disciplinarian that I am. I sat him for about eight minutes and we lost that game. So now he tells people, ‘I learned one thing from my college coach: Once all the starters on the bus, that’s when we leave.’”
For all he took from those formative years in Pennsylvania, Calipari has made sure to give back. He established scholarships at Clarion in DeGregorio and Sacco’s names. Sunday will mark the second time he’s hosted his alma mater for an exhibition, for which the visitors will receive a $20,000 check.
Calipari stays in close contact with his high school and college coaches, and on a recent recruiting trip to Pittsburgh called them up and invited them out for “a snack.” That made the 81-year-old DeGregorio’s day.
“One thing about John that people should know,” he said, “is he’s never forgotten the people who helped him along the way. His high school coach and I are friends, and we always talk about how this time of year we start getting phone calls from radio stations and newspapers and all the sudden we’re semi-celebrities, just because we happened to be in John’s life.”