Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Revisiting John Calipari's visit to Pittsfield, 30 years later

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The item showed up in my social media last week, and it got me thinking.

There was a picture of a very, very young John Calipari with a mention that it was 30 years to the day that Calipari became the head basketball coach at the University of Massachusetts.

It was striking to see the then 29-year old Calipari's photo show up. It was equally striking to see because less than two weeks later, Calipari was in Pittsfield.

"It isn't going to be an overnight turnaround," Calipari said when we spoke before a banquet at the old Itam Lodge, honoring coach Paul Procopio and the St. Joseph boys basketball team that had won the MIAA state Division III championship back in March.

The banquet was May 9, 1988.

Calipari wasn't wrong about much, but he was wrong about the turnaround.

After going 10-18 in the 1988-89 season, he guided the Minutemen to the NIT in his second season and to Madison Square Garden and the NIT semifinals in his third.

By the time the 1991-92 season came around — Calipari's fourth season — the Minutemen had advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16. It was the first time in 30 years that a UMass team had made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament

Six years later, UMass was the No. 1 team in the country, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, and Calipari's Minutemen made it all the way to the Final Four at The Meadowlands.

But eight years earlier, nobody knew who John Calipari was, and I'm sure that most of those folks in attendance at the Itam had no idea either. There were some 250 people in attendance to honor Procopio's team and to hear Calipari preach the gospel of UMass basketball.

"You know that if we get this thing going, all of Western Mass. will go nutty for UMass basketball," Calipari said. On that, boy was he right.

In eight years, his UMass teams went 193-71. That first season was his only losing season at the helm in Amherst.

"We're going to have to get more of our kind of kids here," Calipari said back then. "We've got to get some big kids here, some borderline Big East players. We've got to do that to get this program to the next level."

Jim McCoy, Lou Roe, Marcus Camby were only a couple of those names that fit the description of the kind of player he was looking for.

Roe, out of Atlantic City, had seemingly had the University of Pittsburgh on his radar before Calipari got him to come to UMass. Ironically, Calipari was hired off the staff at Pitt.

"When I was at Pittsburgh, one of the reasons we could recruit kids was because of the [Big East]," Calipari said. "I can tell a kid you can come to UMass and play right away — and get the exposure. You can go to a Big East school and your team gets exposure, but you might not get exposed."

Calipari took over a team that had a losing record in each of its nine previous seasons. He had no illusions.

"It's funny," he told me with a laugh. "I must not have a very good team. I've been called by five tournaments to play the host team in the opening round. I've had Virginia, Iowa, Providence, Iowa State — I mean I've had 50 schools call back to schedule games.

"We must not be as good as some people think."

That all changed soon enough.

When you look back, the former UMass coach seemed to know what he was getting into and had it all mapped out when he arrived on Waubeek Road to speak to the Crusaders, their parents and a lot of hoop fans.

It went exactly as he predicted on that night in May.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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