TOM DAVIS: John Calipari, Jon Coffman are hell-bent on making an impact, showing appreciation

Kentucky's Wenyen Gabriel, left, receives instructions from Wildcats' men's basketball coach John Calipari during the second half of a game against Fort Wayne Wednesday in Lexington, Ky. (By The Associated Press)
Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman calls a play during the second half of a game against Kentucky Wednesday in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 86-67. (By The Associated Press)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – There stood a pair of college basketball coaches along the sideline of Rupp Arena Wednesday evening, separated – at times – by 70-plus feet or so, and financially separated by $8 million annually or so.

Kentucky coach John Calipari and Fort Wayne men’s basketball coach Jon Coffman have chosen identical careers, but they work in two very different worlds.

Though that separation goes much deeper than Calipari’s Tom Ford loafers as compared to Coffman’s Cole Haan’s, what does bind the two is their shared appreciation for the paths that they have chosen, which on this day is very fitting.

“I talked to them after the game,” Calipari said of his Wildcat players following their win over Coffman’s Mastodons. “I really said very little about the game. (I) Talked about Thanksgiving.”

“I just said to the team, ‘How many of you in this room understand how thankful you need to be? I hope you understand. I mean, how did you get that body you have? You haven’t done anything for this. It’s been given to you.'”

And Calipari wasn’t just speaking about the players and their God-given size and athleticism. He was talking about himself, as well.

“When I see someone homeless or I see someone that’s struggling,” Calipari explained, “I say, only by the grace of God that’s not me. Where I came from, how I was brought up, it could have been me.”

The Kentucky basketball program will celebrate Thanksgiving today by serving food at a local Salvation Army facility. Calipari said that it is part of the education process for his young student-athletes, in which they can draw lessons to apply for the remainder of their lives.

“I want them to feel.” Calipari said. “When we do the Christmas stuff where we bring in 12 families and we pay two months’ rent, do you know what those mothers do when the players give them the rent check for two months? They cry. They cry. I wanted my players to see that. Do you understand the impact by doing something little, by having an impact on somebody else?”

Calipari and Coffman both “feel” a sense of gratitude for their positions in life and they do so on a daily basis.

I asked Coffman if it was surreal to look down the sideline and see a Hall of Fame coach at the other end, but he said that rush of adrenaline happens daily at the Gates Sports Center just as much as it does when coaching on national television.

“I do that every day,” Coffman said of feeling grateful and excited about his life and career. “I do that every day when I walk into the office and I look over at these guys and I think ‘Someone is paying me to do this?'”

Coffman spent two years working a financially rewarding, but not personally fulfilling, job in finance. Those 24 months left a lasting impression on him that he can’t dismiss.

“I worked a job for two years,” Coffman said. “I haven’t felt like I’ve worked a day since then.”

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In the case of Calipari, he was an athlete that admittedly lacked for ability, yet he has ascended to the highest athletic stage possible and he is dumbfounded by that notion.

“I shouldn’t be the coach,” Calipari said. “As a player, I was small, but I was slow. I’m coaching at Kentucky?”

Calipari may not be able to fathom his position in life as the leader of Big Blue Nation, but what he isn’t going to do is waste the platform.

“I’ve got to be grateful,” Calipari said. “I told (the players) that. Can you imagine? There’s no reason I should be the Kentucky coach. You had people try to stop me from getting this job. There is no reason I should be the Kentucky coach. And I am.”

“Now all of a sudden we got 30, 40 kids in the NBA. We’re having an impact on kids’ lives and families.”

That impact isn’t just made on the former Kentucky players’ immediate families, it is at those athletes’ core, as they take Calipari’s teachings into society.

“There are 2,600 homeless in our city,” Calipari said. “Are you kidding me? Lexington, Kentucky? One of the wealthiest cities? We have 2,600 homeless? I want my kids to know that. Then you have a chance to have an impact on stuff. How do you do it? What are you going to do?”

What both Calipari and Coffman do is ensure their players have the ability to look big picture at a situation.

The Fort Wayne players recently spent time with Fort Wayne resident and United States Air Force Reserve Officer Nate Hiegel on building a “team mindset,” which is applicable on and off of the court.

“A big part of your program,” Coffman said, “is understanding that you are part of something bigger than yourself.”

Calipari concurred.

“This is a good time for a young team,” Calipari said, “because these kids most of their life to this point, what have they thought about? Themselves. What did they dream about? Themselves. Now all of a sudden you’re put in this position where you can have an impact.”

“It’s why I love the fact when I read about my guys in the league, in the NBA. Not even those guys, even a Jon Hood. You see guys that maybe aren’t in the league, but you see what they’re doing in communities and how they’re being involved. I mean, this is the great thing about coaching at Kentucky.”

Or Fort Wayne.

The platforms to do good, be it large (Kentucky) or small (Fort Wayne) are both being managed well by these two coaches and for that, we should all be grateful today.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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