“He surprised everybody by doing that. He came to see our kids I had been telling him about. He is talking 6-11, and I am talking 4-11 when it comes to players,” Sacco laughed and said. “He had to come see for himself. But it was really great. People could not believe he took time to do that. It didn’t surprise me that John would do that.
“He doesn’t get to intermingle with my players. Someone asked my kids if they saw him at the game and they said they didn’t notice until after the game. I saw him come in on the far side of the gym and I was chuckling inside. I was delighted because I wanted him to see these scrappy little kids play. They dive on the floor and love to play. Do they have any Division I ability? No. We have to watch when John comes to make sure we are on the right side of the NCAA. He doesn’t come to the locker room or give pep talks. He just slipped in and sat on press row.”
Calipari brought assistant coach Orlando Antigua with him and they saw Cornell fall 74-57 to Lincoln Park, which was led by 6-10 Temple recruit Devontae Watson (17 points, 17 rebounds, 9 blocks). “He was theirAnthony Davis,” Sacco joked.
Calipari has had Sacco sit on the team bench with him and Sacco knows he has an open invitation to come to Kentucky any time just as he did at Massachusetts and Memphis when Calipari was coaching there.
“I would love to go see them play in New Orleans, but we qualified for state and we start playing Friday night again,” Sacco said. “But I would love to be there for him. I don’t ever tell him I am coming, though. I just talk to a secretary and make arrangements and don’t say a word to him. He would be too fussy if I did. He would like, ‘Where is Coach at? Where’s he staying? Are you going to pick him up?’ I just go, take care of things and then see him after the game.”
Sacco has been a Calipari supporter since he had him on his team and that has not wavered during Calipari’s coaching career.
“It meant lot to me to have him come to our game, but he knows I have always supported him wherever he is. I think he always tries to do the best he can for whatever people he is working for,” Sacco said. “He has done great everywhere he has been. When he was at UMass and was not very good at the beginning, I supported him. He is my guy, my man. That’s the way I approach it. He and I can always talk. We have done things together in terms of basketball that other coaches have not done.
“I really can’t explain our relationship. I don’t ask John for a lot. I don’t need to and don’t want to. I tell him he is always going to get a lot of new friends, but I am with him if he’s 5-25. I don’t abandon ship. Thank God he’s not 5-25. With the way those guys work, they won’t fail.”
Sacco marvels with the success Kentucky’s freshmen-dominated team has had this year.
“Less than a year ago these kids were going to senior proms. Are they really freshmen or did he go out and just grab guys from somewhere? He is really proud of them and says they are good academically, good citizens and just good kids,” Sacco said.
“He is so happy at Kentucky with everything that is going on. One of his ultimate goals was to work at Kentucky. It’s not a job that opens every day. It’s a plum of a place. The people are so nice and John just loves it there,” Sacco said.
While Sacco knows Calipari would love to win the national title that has eluded him during three previous Final Four trips, he also knows Calipari will not let a national title define his career.
“I would saying winning this year would mean a lot to him, but he would never want to be known just for championships,” Sacco said. “He took three programs and made them all successful and has had very good players at all three schools that have gone on to the NBA. I think John is proud that all his kids can call him and talk to him. That is more of what he is about than ‘I have got a piece of championship hardware.’ That’s my feeling from knowing John.
“He would love to win that championship, but if not he will still get up in the morning, go to church, play ball with (his son) Bradley. Not winning will not change him. He will still be the guy having walk-on players on his team that he knows. He doesn’t forget his roots.”
Sacco said Calipari “still knows 99 percent of the people by name” when he returns to Pennsylvania to visit.
“When he walks into an arena, everybody wants to say hi and shake hands, and he does it,” Sacco said. “But that’s who he is. Basketball has been great to him and he’ll never do anything to diminish that. But he’s also a guy who remembers his roots and takes time to come back to see his old coach like he did again Friday. John does so many good things for so many people, but he doesn’t do it for the attention. He just does it because that’s the way he’s always been and always will be.”