Chris Woolard knew when he came to Kentucky as associate athletics director of basketball operations to work with coach John Calipari that he had a chance to be part of something special. However, even Woolard admitted he was not quite expecting a 38-2 record and national championship like the Wildcats achieved in his first season.
“This was one of the best years of my life. I came in on a very special season, but the expectation when you come to Kentucky is to have success like we have had the last three years,” Woolard said during a talk at the Ohio UK Convention last weekend in Franklin, Ohio.
Woolard had been associate commissioner for sports services at Conference USA since 2008 and had been an assistant coach at Murray State from 1997-2003, when the Racers made three NCAA tournament appearances.
He says he quickly realized after getting to Kentucky that Calipari was perfect for the UK¿job.
“Hands down, coach Calipari is the best in the country. He gets it and embraces this job at Kentucky. No one else could have come in and wanted to give as much as he does,” Woolard said. “He does that because he feels a responsibility in his role as head coach at Kentucky to do that. I have heard him say he could sit in his office and watch film and do recruiting stuff but that would be a disservice to this program. He wants to give back.
“Some others on the staff spend most of their time recruiting. Others spend more time with players working out. Everything is in place for this program to be successful every year, and that’s the way he’s going to keep it.”
Woolard touched on a variety of subjects from Calipari’s schedule to next year’s team to the recent White House visit:
Woolard was brought in by Calipari to “oversee basketball and make sure everything was going the right direction” from compliance to travel to scheduling. Woolard says he works daily with UK compliance officials to “make sure we are fully compliant on everything.”
However, he says his most challenging job is helping to determine Calipari’s schedule.
“That is the one thing I was not prepared for coming in. I thought I knew what to expect, but I did not realize how in demand his time would be, and this was before he won the national championship even,” he said. “We get 15 to 20 requests daily for coach Calipari to attend an event. It might be a fundraiser, charity dinner, speaking engagement, birthday party, graduation and on and on.
“Coach wants to give back. He wants to say yes to everything. Unfortunately, he can’t do that with his coaching responsibilities and trying to spend time with his family. We sit down daily and go through the requests.¿It’s one of the most time consuming parts of the job, but it is so rewarding because I see how important his job is to Kentucky fans.”
Woolard said team play defined Kentucky’s championship more than anything to him.
“Everybody was skeptical when Cal got here about could you develop a team when players are leaving after a year or two (for the NBA). In most cases, you can’t. It’s really hard with guys coming in that have been stars, coddled and given so much in terms of playing time and shots,” he said. “They are used to being stars. How do you break some of those habits and get guys to come together in a year or two to be a team?
“I don’t think many coaches can do that. One coach who can do it is John Calipari. He is thinking about his team and thinking basketball and how to win a championship 24 hours a day seven days a week. When I was with Conference USA and he was coaching at Memphis, I would get calls at midnight from him and then at 7 a.m. the next morning.¿His mind never stops with ideas about how to become better.
“We had great practices last year, but even more than on the court, what defined the team’s success and the reason we won the championship was every day in the film room before practice when he met with the team. From day one his message never changed. It was all about teamwork and all about coming together and sacrificing for each other and winning the national championship. When one guy would get off course, he would bring him right back the next day.”
Woolard said Calipari told point guard Marquis Teague the same message day after day from day one.
“It never changed in the film room. He told him, ‘If you want to get to where you want to go and lead the team to national championship, you have got to buy in to what we want you to do.’ By the end of the year, he was one of the best point guards in the country,’” Woolard said.
“Same with Doron Lamb. He told him, ‘You can be one of the best players in the country, but you do not play hard enough.’ He would watch film and run it back and back showing him that. Coach had visions for this team and he articulated things the same way every day and then the team practiced those things on the court.
“Coach loves his players. He has them over to his house two or three times a week. That is what builds family, builds teamwork. Guys have to commit 24/7, and he wants to build family. That’s one of the main reasons that team came together and why this model works at Kentucky under Calipari. He never wavers in his message to the players or his commitment to them.”
Woolard said the championship season was everything he imagined, and maybe more.
“Not winning at Indiana showed we had work to do and actually got Terrence Jones going again. That game propelled us into the conference and we went 16-0 in conference play, an unbelievable feat. We fell a little short (to Vanderbilt) in the conference tournament championship game, but maybe that refocused us for the NCAA,” Woolard said.
“This was a group with swagger. Not cocky, but they knew they should win. They had a great business attitude in the tournament. They were such a great group to be with. One concern for me coming to Kentucky was what would it be like dealing with such high profile players. I was shocked. They did everything I¿asked. They all handled their business. We had nine guys in the spring with a 3.0 (grade-point average) or better. They went out in the community.
“They were just a great group of kids that were great representatives of Kentucky. I will always remember how much fun we had and how great those kids were to be around. It was a great, great group to be around.”
Woolard joked that during Final Four week before the Wildcats¿played Louisville, Calipari told the players it really was “just another game” and for them not to let the hype overwhelm them.
“Before each tournament game Cal brought in sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, who works with a lot of pro golfers. Bob had the same message each time — have fun. He told them, ‘This is what you guys came here for. Smile, hug each other, tell each other you did a good job. Enjoy it.’ That’s exactly what Cal was telling them, too.”
Woolard noted that Kentucky’s welcome home to Lexington after winning the NCAA title stunned the players and staff.
“We thought we knew what it would be like and understood the importance of Kentucky basketball,” he said. “We understood there would be people at Rupp Arena and thought that would be neat, but we thought then there would not be people at the airport waiting for us to land like there are at times.
“We land and there are 8,000 fans there. “Great. We think then maybe there will be a couple thousand fans at Rupp Arena. We start driving out of the airport and there are cars lined up on Versailles Road all the way down on both sides of the street. Oncoming traffic is stopped because people are on top of their car hoods cheering. That’s when tears came to our eyes. People were lining the road all the way from the airport to Rupp Arena.
“We drive the bus into Rupp Arena and look up and the place is packed with 24,000 fans and the loudest I¿have ever heard it. It was an amazing feeling for our guys, and I think one experience players and coaches will never forget. That is what the Big Blue Nation is all about and why Kentucky basketball stays at this level. Recruits want to be part of that.”
Woolard says if he had any doubts about Kentucky having the best fan base in the country, they disappeared when Calipari decided to take the national championship trophy on a two-day tour to various spots in the state.
“You couldn’t go do that at another place. Cal could have done things to promote himself after winning the title or promote the program, but instead he wanted to take the trophy around the state,” Woolard said. “It was all his idea. We had seven stops, and every time there would be 2,000 to 3,000 people waiting for us. Coach wanted everybody to get to see the trophy. He stood there however long it took. Every person got his or her picture with Calipari and the championship trophy. That’s something else I¿will never forget about the season and could not have been done any place in the country except Kentucky.”
Woolard explained how unusual it was for a championship team to get into the White House to see the president as quickly as Kentucky did in May. However, he joked that the invitation came within a few hours of word getting out on Twitter that former president Bill Clinton had been in Lexington and all the players had got their picture made with him and the championship trophy.
Woolard said the trip to Washington was the last time the entire championship team was together.
“What a great way to cap off that season of friendship and family. As guys were getting on the bus (for the ride to the airport) and then going to be heading their own way when we got back to Lexington, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got on the bus to grab his stuff. He was going to take the short train ride to Philadelphia. But when he got on the bus, it hit everybody this was it. It was an emotional few minutes, with guys spending time telling each other how much they had meant to one another. They knew they had formed special friendships for life.”
Freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are already on campus, and Nerlens Noel should be soon as well.
“(Noel) is fine academically. He’s finishing a couple of classes he had to finish up after he reclassified (from the 2013 graduating class to the 2012 class),” Woolard said.
Woolard says the freshmen are an “even better” group of student-athletes than those last season.
“They come in with good grades. It’s ‘yes sir, no sir’ to everything. They have done everything we have asked of them since they got here in June,” he said. “Our coaches are out Wednesday through Sunday recruiting, then in the office Monday and Tuesday. They work the team out one hour a day on Monday and Tuesday, something the NCAA never allowed schools to do before.
“They get into the dribble-drive, work on individual moves. All are also doing very well in school. I just think fans are going to love the team this year. Hopefully it can come together like last year’s team. Not every team can do that, but I¿think we are going to have another fun season.”
He says junior Jon Hood, who missed last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee he suffered in the preseason, is cleared to practice and has been at every summer workout even though he’s wearing a protective knee brace.
“He is working very hard and is a great kid. We are looking to see Jon as a contributor,” Woolard said. “He can shoot the basketball, gives us some length. He just has to get comfortable coming off his injury, but he is back healthy.”
Woolard says Calipari also has big expectations for sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, who transferred from North Carolina State to Kentucky¿last year and had to sit out the championship season. Woolard said Harrow “is different” from other Calipari point guards but that Calipari has had success with different types of point guards.
“He’s not as big as some point guards Cal has had, but he’s probably quicker, probably shoots better than most and he’s really athletic,” Woolard said. “What a guy has to do under Cal is learn the system. The great thing last year was that Ryan got to practice with the team every day, and that really helped in his learning transition and fitting in on the team.”
Woolard said Wright State transfer Julius Mays, a fifth-year senior who is eligible immediately, can give “backup minutes” at point guard as well as shooting guard.
“You might see Archie Goodwin play some at point guard,” Woolard said. “Jarrod Polson has had a really good summer and been very solid. He could help. I think we will be fine at point guard. Ryan is a true point guard, and we have others that can help handle the position as needed.”
Kentucky’s new dormitory for basketball players opened this summer and is located even closer to the basketball practice facility than the old one was.
“They are all very excited about that, especially the returning guys. They think the new lodge is unbelievable,” Woolard said. “Having a lodge allows us to become a family so much quicker than if players were living all over the place. The new lodge is probably 50 steps from the practice facility. Players wake up, go to class and then can walk to the practice facility. They can get in 24 hours a day. Our managers live in the lodge, so they can grab one of them to go rebound for them or whatever.
“Our training and weight room is right there, and so is the academic support center. It’s the best setup you could ask for. In recruiting, you can tell players there is no better setup in the country. We are also going to have the best locker room at Rupp Arena of any college or pro team next season.”