Home » Cover Story: The Bigger Wins Come Off the Court, Q & A With John And Ellen Calipari

Cover Story: The Bigger Wins Come Off the Court, Q & A With John And Ellen Calipari

John and Ellen Calipari love Kentucky, so they pay it forward
John and Ellen Calipari.
UK men’s basketball photoshoot at the Kentucky Theater.
Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Mark Green: The Kentucky basketball program was valued in 2019 at $334 million dollars, the highest in the country. Coach, do you ever look at your position as CEO of Kentucky basketball, and are there financial metrics that coaches tend to monitor?
John Calipari: I never thought of it that way, but here is what I would say. I am in a seat that is rented and the question is, ‘While I am in the seat, what do I do with it?’ Do I watch film, do I stay inside a bubble, or do I use this seat to move people to do good? How do I use the seat for my players? How have I used the seat for the university? Because you are only here for a short time. I would not say I am a CEO, even though I oversee a lot of people and I try to do what I can to make it a good situation for them.

MG: Dollar discussions are not a regular daily activity when you are on the job?
JC: Only in this regard: If there is something I can bring people together and we can raise money for, I will do it that way. Normally, Ellen and I would say that a big portion of what we do, no one really knows—we are not doing it for that. But if I think of the Haiti earthquake (2010), or superstorm Sandy (2012), or the hurricane in Houston (2017), or the stuff we do with the (Calipari Basketball) Fantasy (Experience) Camp, it is to bring people together to give to causes collectively, which becomes a bigger impact. If you talk about numbers, I do try to figure out what we can do collectively with other people.

MG: You two started The Calipari Foundation in 2012. We hear that you make it a point to discuss financial responsibility with your players and that the Calipari Foundation is involved in improving financial literacy for young people. What spurred you to get involved in the financial literacy of young people?
JC: People approach us. I have always said that there has to be something there quantitatively; I need to see numbers, see that we are not just throwing money away. We want it to be an organization that we really believe in and that we are truly helping them run their organization. That is different than when you talk about other things.
With financial literacy, we knew that our state needed it. I know how Ellen and I grew up. We didn’t have credit cards; we didn’t know what a stock, bond or a mutual fund was. We grew up like most of Kentucky grew up. Stocks? My dad would probably say, “If you can’t eat stocks, we are not buying stocks right now.” I do financial literacy with my own team because this gives them that chance. Our kids leave here and all of the sudden they are going to come across a lot of money, and how do they handle it? Our kids, the ones that have gone to the league, have done a good job with their money. I am proud of that.

MG: The Caliparis have acted with intention to instill a philanthropic give-back attitude in the players you influence while being a coach and surrogate family. Does your philanthropy grow out of being surrogate parents for so many players, young men living away from home and coming from a wide range of backgrounds and who maybe could use some help?
Ellen Calipari: When we were in Memphis, it started a lot with younger kids and through church and whatever avenue it was. There was a guy who ran a street ministry—he still runs it in Memphis—and tutors kids of all ages through high school. I used to tutor in elementary school with kids. There was a big need to start from the bottom up.
JC: We both grew up where it was about community. No one had more than anyone else; it was about helping each other. I talk about my mother being a pay-it-forward person. Something happens to you; you pay it forward. If you ever told us 35 years ago that we were going to be in a position to do things philanthropically like this, we would have both laughed.
What we try to do with the telethons is to show them the impact they have. When we did what we did for Houston (following Hurricane Harvey in 2017), all the Houston kids (UK players) went with us to Houston to go to one of the shelters so they could see the impact. The NBA Care Community Assist Award is the biggest award the NBA gives out for players who give back to communities. It’s not just money; it is spending time, being involved, financially doing things. Past winners have been John Wall, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins. They are our guys, and it makes you feel that the foundation we started has made a difference. I just heard Brandon Knight gave a couple hundred thousand dollars to his high school to build a weight room. I could tell you 25 or 30 examples. Those things make me feel that it is more than winning we are teaching—it is life skills, getting into society and having an impact.

MG: Have any of your former players created a foundation like you have?
JC: Yes, 60 or 70% of them have their own foundations.
MG: The list of grantees and recipients of help from The Calipari Foundation includes the homeless, feeding hungry people. It looks like a focus on the fundamentals, perhaps the way you would approach coaching basketball. Would you say there is an equivalent approach to your philanthropy?
JC: Most of it’s based on children who are underprivileged and don’t have the access and opportunity. This year, Ellen and I are looking at COVID and the remote learning at the grade schools here in Lexington. One thing that went along with in-school learning is that the kids were getting free meals, and now they are staying home. We wanted to give money to the schools to make sure that these kids—even though they are not going to school—and their families have food for the week. I think we went eight or 10 weeks of doing that. A lot of it was ours. We did a podcast to try to generate more. We felt good about that.

MG: A lot of what your foundation does is to enlist others to contribute. How do you go about things here in the community, seeking out others to help?
JC: I strong-arm them; I lock the door and say, “You are not leaving until you give us this money!” I say that jokingly, but really it’s sorta not. We do the fantasy camp and then we do an auction. I will have people in the community come to the auction and I tell them I need them to buy this auction item at this price; unless it goes higher, I need you to get it. They say, “OK, I got it.” I also tell them what it’s for, where we are putting this money: children without fathers. And that is happening in our town with the Urban League, trying to help build houses and give money back to that.
If we are doing a telethon for example, I would say, “Ellen and I are going to do, let’s just say, $25,000.” That is what I will ask them for; can you join us? I am not going to ask anyone to do something that I am not going to do. The fantasy camp raises an amount of money, and along with money that Ellen and I put in that foundation, that’s what is given away. Now when we do the fantasy camp, whatever we raise that weekend we give away that weekend. This foundation is a pass-through … more than anything else.

MG: The foundation does not raise and bank money and decide what to do with it later?
JC: No, it goes right through. Then if there is more money that needs to be put in it, Ellen and I would just keep putting it in.

MG: Ellen has developed a public profile in the past few years. And word is that she has the stronger technical skill set of the two of you, although you are obviously a team. Are either of you the financial person in the team?
EC: Oh my gosh, definitely me!
JC: I have to ask her for $20 and she gets mad! She says, “You are going to $20 me to death! What are you doing?” She writes all of the checks. We do a little more through the bank directly today, which you couldn’t do in the past. So now she doesn’t work as hard as she used to—she doesn’t do very much (laughs). She is the financial person.

MG: Does that apply to the foundation as well?
EC: No.
JC: No, she said she was not taking that on. When I used to run basketball camps and we would do it, she would do all the finances. All I did was run the camp. We have a lawyer who oversees that, makes sure if there is anything like taxes that need to be paid (it is done). Jeff Zurcher (foundation secretary/treasurer) is overseeing it also, and the lawyer (determines) if we can do this through this foundation. Jeff Zurcher will also (tell us if) you are better off doing that yourself than doing it through the foundation. Chris Wollard (executive director) kind of does what Ellen would do to oversee everything and makes sure how much we have before giving away money; seeing if there is enough in there. And if there is not, he will say we need to replenish and we would write a check.

MG: John Calipari is the highest paid coach in college basketball. What do John and Ellen give to the foundation and do you also give to other charities? Are you the main contributors to the foundation?
JC: We are one of the contributors. The Fantasy Experience (Camp) is another. Every year the amount is different, and so is whom we give to. One was student debt on campus. There are things we do on campus and other things that we don’t tell everybody about. I’ll be honest, if you ask me exactly what we give from year to year, I couldn’t tell you. I just know that when we are asked, we give. I would say we are good stewards of what we are given. We are not saying specifically this (amount), but it is significant.
MG: Are the programs the foundation helps one-time recipients rather than ongoing operations such as the United Way, which provides funding mechanisms to sustain a variety of programs?
JC: There are probably 10, 12 or 15 charities that are counting on us for operating funds. When you go through those, there is a group that the foundation has given to over the years. That’s why this year we are doing a golf outing, because (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) we can’t do a basketball experience. We want to make sure we have money– along with what Ellen and I give–to give to these foundations that have grown to count on what we do. Now, there will be others; like the program for children came out of the blue. There are others that come out of the blue and ask, “Can you do this?” If we say no, there is probably a reason why we would say no.

MG: How does the foundation screen requests? What elements in a request tend to get a favorable response from the foundation’s president and vice president?
JC: That would be a good one for Chris Wollard and Jeff Zurcher. It is all scaled before it gets to us. Normally it would be, “Here is what we are doing.” We may go to them and say, “Look, we want to give X amount to this, so figure it out. Can we do it?” If they say you are better off doing it yourself (than working through the foundation), then we will just write the check. Other times they come and say, “This is a good idea, what do you think?” I’ll say, “I like those; do we have enough to cover that?” We have done things for childhood cancer. Some of it we have done through the foundation; there have been other things we have just done privately.

MG: Do either of you have a role model or a person who is a most significant influencer when it comes to charity, philanthropy activity?
EC: Just family. It is about doing what you can do with whatever you have to give.
JC: When we were in Memphis, a good friend, Paul Tutor Jones (hedge fund manager and philanthropist) of the Robin Hood Foundation in New York, game us the idea of the auctions to raise money to give to charity. We were then running the YES Foundation—Youth Education through Sports in Memphis. It started as: Let’s do a camp and get 250 kids who can’t afford camp, had never been away from home, let them stay overnight on a college campus three days. Give them shorts, T-shirts, shoes, everything. Have a segment of education, a segment of basketball and then the evening program be music. We had David Porter (a Memphis musician, entrepreneur and philanthropist) speak to them. We had different people, business leaders, come in and speak to them. I felt it was one of the greatest things we had ever done.
I called Paul Tutor Jones and said, “Paul, here is what we did with this foundation.” And he replied, “How do you feel?” I said, “I feel really good about it.” He said, “Well, great, because you really didn’t have an impact on those kids.” And I said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean?” He said, “Unless you are doing something over a period of time to help, you are only stabbing in, giving away and then leaving. It does probably more harm than good.” So, from that conversation, through the YES Foundation, we got seven or eight middle schools to have tutoring programs for their athletes, for men’s and women’s basketball after school before they had practice. We employed teachers. We found out these kids were hungry, so we got Kroger to give us snacks. We did it year-round. We had a banquet at the end of the year. Now all of the sudden it had an impact. When you do a foundation, you are doing it to bring people together so that we can have a bigger impact.
So if you ask me who had an impact on me, I would tell you Paul Tutor Jones—both how to fundraise and how to have an impact, how to look at the numbers. And if it is not having an impact, do something else. Don’t give to something that is not showing a return for the people who are involved.

MG: The Caliparis have been in Lexington since 2009. After you settled in, was there anything that came as an appealing surprise about the area? Meanwhile, is there an aspect of Central Kentucky that presents an opportunity for improvement?
EC: No, I don’t think so (regarding surprises). I like being in a college town. I think that is a good thing. Megan came here to go to the University of Kentucky. Brad was 12 years old and was in middle school and so it was a pretty easy transition for them.
JC: People don’t bother us. We go out to dinner and someone may come up, but in most cases they may wave or say nice to see you. They have been really respectful that way, and that is a good thing. This area—Lexington, the central part of our state—we are loving it here. We have everything at our fingertips. We can get to where we need to go pretty simple and easy. We like our life here. We like our friends here.
If you ask me what’s (an opportunity to do better) in our town, I would tell you for this wealthy a place and with this many people doing well, to have homelessness at the level we do, why don’t we address it more in this town? Is it a mental health issue? Is it a drug issue? There are people asking for money all of the time. I don’t like to give money; I would rather give food. Rather than maybe feeding an issue that they have, how do you solve it? That’s why Ellen and I at Thanksgiving brought food over at The Hope Center and why we give money to The Hope Center. When we went in, they were lined up in the hallways on beds and mattresses because they ran out of room. With this COVID, how is this happening? What do we do? So, I would say for all of us in this town, that would be the No. 1 thing. How do we deal with this homelessness issue?

MG: Is there any difference in the way the business community here interacts with the Kentucky basketball program and the relationship you see with business communities and college basketball programs elsewhere?
JC: I would hope wherever we have been, Memphis or Massachusetts, that we connected with the community in that we created that love affair, that buzz that you need, that drew people to the games, which meant restaurants were open, which meant shirts were being sold, which meant excitement in the city, all that stuff.
When we are at UMass now, I still see friends who have restaurants. We played a midnight game every year for six or seven years, and the restaurants in the town were smoking because the game started at midnight. When we stopped it my last year, they said, “Cal, you are killing me. That kept me going for a month.”
Here, I would hope whether it’s the downtown area, whether it’s the outlying areas where people are going somewhere to watch the game, that it has created that engine to help all of the community. I hope on our campus that test scores go up, that the morale of alums and other people involved with the university is up and they take more pride. I would hope we are getting more people from around the country. This program is the front porch. It’s not the university, it’s a small piece. It could be the magnet to bring all the stuff together.
When I was at UMass, we had a president who took over that whole system; his name was Michael Hooker. He ended up being the chancellor of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a great friend; he was a good guy. He came to me in my fourth or fifth year when we just started getting it going—we had the losingest program of the 1980s; out of 310 programs, we were 305 in a decade. So, now it’s our fifth year and we are starting to get ranked. He calls me and my staff into the office and he says, “Listen, for me to do what I am going to do here, I need your program to be in the top 20.”
Now, think about what I am saying: We were 305. Top 20? He asked, “Do you guys make enough money? Do you need more scholarship money? What about recruiting money? How about salaries?” My staff said to me, “You will never leave! Why would you leave? I just heard what this guy said to you.” But he said, “I need you to do it. I need these kids to be engaged academically, and I need you to do it right.”
At one of the university functions about a year later, he said, “This basketball program is going to be in the Final Four within a decade.” I’m thinking, you are putting this on me! I immediately said, “He is right and our women’s coach is really going to get that program right there in that Final Four.” To take it off me. But I don’t know why more presidents or chancellors don’t look at basketball programs in that way: I need you to bring us good stuff; I need these kids to be good kids.
We graduated 20 of our last 20 (here at UK). We have gotten the academic award from the NCAA seven years running, been a top 10, top 20 academic program. We are normally, as a group, near a 3.0 just about every year I have been here. We have had four players graduate in three years. It’s true, but no one talks about that side. We are talking about what we try to do off the court with these kids. But the only thing most (media) will talk about is on the court, how many wins, Final Fours, national titles. But it is bigger than that. Here, you are trying to do everything and trying to connect the dots within our community. That is why we have a great relationship with all of the business people, the banks. You hate to say it but this program puts people in a good mood or a bad mood. It does.

MG: Some people discuss the connectivity of economic development and economic activity with big sports programs like Kentucky basketball. Have you ever been asked to assist in recruiting businesses to come here or to stay here?
JC: I have. I don’t know if that business came, but I was doing a talk (in a community where) they were recruiting a group that was trying to move to Kentucky or considering it, and they were basketball fans. I went into a side room and talked with them about the universities that we have—that’s built-in employees and staff right there—and about the kind of people who are in this state. That was in Pikeville, I think. I was having coffee the other day and a real estate agent I know was there and said, “I need you to meet two people.” They were people with a coffee company, and they were thinking about bringing a coffee concept to Lexington. We took a picture, too, and I said, “It’s a great place.”
I understand how this is all tied together; it is. When you are in a college town, it’s even more so that we are “married,” that what goes on with this community has a direct impact on the university. UK has built at present about $3 billion worth of buildings on the campus. Where do you think those employees came from? They aren’t coming from California; they are here. Where do you think the businesses came from? They are here. (The renovation and expansion) they are doing with Rupp Arena and the convention center, a big part of that is because we (UK basketball) are in there. (The community is) able to know there is a (revenue) base they are going to get from us. Everybody wants to play in that building. I have had opposing coaches and players say, “If we win that game, we are good for two months.” That building has a special aura that helps us as a basketball program.

MG: Are there some recruiting best practices the Kentucky business community might pick up from sports? Is there a certain pitch that you make about the assets and reasons why they would want to be here?
JC: I would say the biggest thing (to present) is the people, and the opportunity to live in an area where you can get wherever you want to go, yet you are in this area. You want to go to Cincinnati? You want to go to Louisville? Easy. You want to go to Nashville? Easy. You want to go to Chicago, New York? Easy. The base for employment from the universities in and around our state is tremendous. The quality of life is how I would sell it. The quality of life. If you want to be in a CITY city, you are not coming here. If you want a different place to raise your children and start a family and have that kind of life, this is a pretty good place to be.

MG: What about you, Ellen? How do you look at that? What would be your pitch?
EC: I agree with that because I grew up in a very small town in Missouri. I am from the Midwest. I am not a big-city person. This is a great quality of life. It is easy to get around. You have pretty much what you need and, like he said, if you want to go to Cincinnati or Louisville or Nashville—and we have a daughter now in Nashville—you can drive down there easily. It’s a great place to live, actually.
JC: And the airport—anyplace you need to go commercially, you can jump on an airplane there.

MG: You wrote a book, “Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life.” You in the past have been invited to speak to Fortune 500 companies about inspiring their teams there. Do you still do that?
JC: Yes, we probably do 20 of them a year, and the message is pretty simple. We talk about “players first” and how that means employees first. How do you take care of your people? How do you answer questions that they are not asking but they have? It is important where that vision is collectively: How do you inspire people to go beyond what they think? How do you empower people so they are not afraid to take risks that are calculated? Those kinds of things. I enjoy meeting successful people, businesspeople, leaders. I always ask the question: “How many people do you employ? What do they make on average?”
I loved hearing one leader say, “We have 60,000 employees and we give them one meal a day and we make sure it’s a healthy meal.” I’m like, wow! He said, “We do our health insurance within the company, so now you have to get your physicals and your checkups and all of that to be a part of it. It is costing 30% of what the normal health insurance costs.” I am listening to this saying, “Dude, you ought to run for something. That is what we are all looking for.” There won’t be a business I speak to that I won’t ask the question, “Tell me about your employees? How many do you have? Is there anything special that you do for them?” I want to know. Your first thing is to take care of your own people, then they will take care of the clients and everybody else.
MG: Coach, you have a degree in marketing, and you are one of the most effective communicators. Does having that marketing education enable you to be a better communicator at work?
JC: Let me tell you how it came to that. We had no professionals in my family when I grew up. The only professionals I would be around would be teachers. I was going to be a high school coach and teacher. That is what I wanted to do. Then I went away to college and I was playing basketball, and I am like, “Wow, I would like to do this (coach at the college level).” But these guys get fired a lot. I thought if I wasn’t coaching, maybe I would be in business. There was a marketing professor whom I really kind of liked. I had a class, and that is when I shifted and said I wanted to do marketing. It was good, I enjoyed it. It has helped me in everything I have done, every stop I have made, to try to create a mindset, to create a need, all of the things that you do in marketing. I have used that throughout. It was not something as a fifth-grader that I said I was going to do. It was after I got out of high school.
My family never left our area; we went on one vacation. All we knew was this (one area). My mother’s biggest thing to us was this: Dream beyond your surroundings. This is where you were born. This is not who you are, this is where you live. Dream beyond your surroundings. So I wasn’t afraid to see myself in a new area. Then you marry someone who says, “Ok, let’s go for it!” And we have just been on a heck of a ride.