Calipari's Recruiting Prowess No Surprise to Former Classmate
June 11, 2010
Gil Espy, The College Basketball Enquirer
PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- When it comes to the ultra competitive world of college hoops recruiting, the extraordinary success that Kentucky coach John Calipari has enjoyed, particularly during his brief time in Lexington, certainly shouldn't come as a surprise, this according to a former grade school classmate of Calipari's.
"If you knew Cal back then, you'd know why he became such an amazing recruiter," said Benny Fitzgerald, who attended elementary school with Calipari during the sixties in the Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township, Pennsylvania. "Even back then, as a kid, Johnny had an eye for talent...and he hated to lose."
According to Fitzgerald, perhaps the first ever glimpse into Calipari's cut throat approach to recruiting was seen after school on a Moon Township baseball diamond. "We were in the second grade, and Johnny, as usual, was one of the captains," said Fitzgerald. "He knew the best baseball player was this kid whose family had defected to Pennsylvania from Cuba, so he showed the kid a fake letter from Fidel Castro saying that the kid and his family would be deported if he didn't play for Johnny's team. He even forged Castro's name on the letter. Needless to say, the kid decided right then and there to play on Johnny's team."
It was once Calipari became passionate about the game of basketball, however, that the youngster's skills as a recruiter really began to take shape. "Moon Township didn't have very many good basketball players. All the best players were kids who were bused in from Pittsburgh," said Fitzgerald. "So during lunch, Johnny would bribe all of the good players with cookies, chips, candy, phony Roberto Clemente autographs...anything to get them to stick around after class to play for his team. He even brought me in to assist him once our school started having two lunch periods."
"I was handing out so many treats at lunch, the kids came up with a nickname for me," said Fitzgerald. "They called me 'Extra' Benny Fitz."
It was Calipari's cold blooded devotion to "winning at all costs," according to Fitzgerald, that ultimately ended their partnership, as well as their friendship. "Johnny ended up doing the same thing to me that he did, years later, to that Matt Pilgrim kid," said Fitzgerald. "A better player came along, so Johnny gave him my spot. The ironic part was that it was a kid that I, myself, had recruited."
"I gave the guy two packs of Necco Wafers and a Willie Stargell rookie card, and Johnny goes and gives him my spot," recalled Fitzgerald. "I never forgave that snake in the grass for that."
Calipari, whose 2010 recruiting class was recently rated by Rivals.com as the nation's top ranked class, was unavailable for comment.