HILADELPHIA — Hard as it is to believe, the man who raised the bar for University of Massachusetts men's basketball remained unobtrusive until well after yesterday's game at St. Joseph's.
But John Calipari still can't leave an arena without attracting reporters and interest, and yesterday was no exception.
"I hope to be a head coach somewhere next year, but I don't know what opportunities will be out there," said Calipari, that highly paid, highly profiled Philadelphia 76ers assistant who had just witnessed a 73-69 UMass victory. "Maybe I'll be a high school or AAU coach somewhere."
Yesterday's UMass victory was another needed dose of success for a team whose coach, Bruiser Flint, knows there's no shortage of fans who wish Calipari had never left in 1996, and that Flint had never replaced him.
Understand this: if Calipari, 40, is a head coach next year, it will not be in Amherst. To dream of his return is the product of a vivid imagination, for he has gone on to both greener pastures and has never given anyone reason to think his next move will involve putting his career in reverse.
Memphis is more than a rumor, though. The school is interested. Coach Cal does not deny he is interested, too.
"But I hope they do well under (interim coach) Johnny Jones and don't have to call me," he said. "I don't want to cost any coach his job."
He won't talk about any other rumor, though even an authority like Marcus Camby says he finds it hard to believe Calipari likes playing second fiddle for anybody.
But Calipari said he doesn't mind doing so for 76ers coach Larry Brown, at least for a year or two.
"If you had the opportunity to learn from somebody who is a mentor in your profession, someone you respect — and get paid for it — wouldn't you jump at the opportunity?" he asked.
Even so, he finds some humorous irony in the fact that of all the old gang at UMass — Calipari, Flint, Bill Bayno, John Robic and for one year, Ed Schilling — he is the only one not currently a head coach. He also seems unbowed by the fact the Nets fired him after a 3-17 start last season.
The ouster came in the third year of a five-year, $15 million contract, only months after Calipari had led this sad-sack franchise into the playoffs.
"I thought we had it going in New Jersey," he said. "But then we had an ownership change."
Calipari was asked what he'd say to the UMass fans who want Flint removed. His answer may not be the one most fans want, but it came without hesitation.
"I'd tell them that they have a terrific person who is also a terrific coach. And I'd tell them about P.J. Carlesimo, too."
Calipari recalled that over a decade ago, Carlesimo was in danger at Seton Hall. Then he barely squeaked into the NCAA tournament with the help of two wins over Pittsburgh, where Calipari was an assistant.
The next year, Seton Hall went to the NCAA championship game, and Carlesimo became a success story, at least until Latrell Sprewell came along.
"UMass fans have been spoiled," said Calipari, the man who spoiled them. "They say I raised the bar, but all our coaches did it. And Bruiser was a part of it."
Whatever you think of Calipari, believe he means it. He is very loyal to those who are loyal to him, and Flint is atop that list.
You can also believe John Calipari will be a head coach again. Maybe soon.
"I want to go somewhere where you can win," he said. "When you're losing, you're miserable. That doesn't change, no matter how much money you're making."