PRINGFIELD -- Promising to be the best coach he can be, John Calipari assumed command yesterday of the beleaguered basketball program at the University of Massachusetts. Until the UMass administration recently vowed its renewed support for the program, the head coaching spot wasn't a job -- it was a misadventure, wherein for the past 10 years winning seasons eluded the Minutemen.
"I don't think we'll be able to come in here and change things overnight," Calipari said in a news conference at the Basketball Hall of Fame. "But the biggest challenge will be next year. I'm just hoping to recruit two kids that can come in and help us. My goal after that is to recruit four players that will help take us to the next level."
Calipari, 29, a former assistant at Pittsburgh, becomes the fifth coach to attempt to end a decade of losing seasons at UMass. He succeeds Ron Gerlufsen, who resigned in March after compiling a 55-84 five-year record.
Though he declined to discuss the exact terms of his multiyear contract, which includes a buyout clause, Calipari said jokingly, "It's between $13,000 and $7 million . . . but closer to 13."
Said athletic director Frank McInerney, "John brings the excitement of the Big East to our conference (the Atlantic 10), he brings a great background, but most importantly he brings John Calipari to UMass."
Referring to Calipari's relative youth and virtual inexperience as a head coach, McInerney said, "We think he's just as professional as you can get, and his background is the best you can get. His background, basically, was what made him so attractive."
Calipari, a native of Moon, Pa., was a two-year letterman at North Carolina-Wilmington before closing his collegiate career at Clarion (Pa.) State. He began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at Kansas in 1982 under coach Ted Owens, and was responsible for the program's scouting and summer basketball camp. A year later, he was hired as Vermont's recruiting coordinator, but returned to Kansas as a full-time assistant under Larry Brown.
In 1985, Calipari went to Pitt as recruiting coordinator for Roy Chipman and stayed on with current Panther coach Paul Evans, assembling one of the nation's finest freshman classes in 1987. During Calipari's three-year stint at Pitt, the Panthers went 64-29 and made an NIT appearance (in '86) and two consecutive NCAA appearances ('87 and '88).
"The recruiting for the Atlantic 10 will be just as tough as it was at Pitt," he said. "Instead of going up against a coach like John Thompson, I'm going up against a John Chaney, so it's going to be just as hard."
The search for a coach, which began six weeks ago, was narrowed from a field of 11 applicants -- including UMass alumnus Al Skinner, an assistant at Rhode Island who's now considered a shoo-in replacement for Texas-bound Tom Penders -- to Calipari and Larry Shyatt, an assistant at New Mexico.
"They were two very different people, but they were two people who could have got the job done," McInerney said. "It was one of the toughest decisions I've ever made. I wound up staring at the wall at 3 a.m., wondering which way to go. But I feel we've found a man who's ready to make an extreme commitment to the program."