MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Seated over a steak at a back table at Paulette's, the midtown institution here, John Calipari kept laughing, telling stories and looking like a man on top the world, not the one who had supposedly been left for dead a few years back.
When Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and others bailed on him, his Memphis Tigers and Conference USA for the supposed greener pastures of the Big East, it was supposed to be the end for John Calipari here in the Mid South.
"Cal's now the highest-paid mid-major coach in the country," Bob Huggins cracked at the time.
The highest-paid mid-major coach in the country is also the coach of the No. 1 team in the country, the last undefeated team in the country and set for the biggest game in the country, Saturday against No. 2 Tennessee.
He might coach in Conference USA, but half his team is headed to the NBA. And so while all his old friends are slugging it out in the meat grinder of the Big East, he's kicked back here knowing every last one of them is looking up the rankings at him.
"We're having fun trying to win every game," he laughed.
Yes, every game. It's been 26 up and 26 won for the Tigers thus far, giving them a shot at being the first team to enter the NCAA tournament with a perfect record since UNLV in 1991.
And nothing gets Cal going faster than all the critics claiming Memphis is nothing but the product of a weak conference, about to get treated to a dose of reality by the Volunteers of the SEC. Forget the fact that the SEC is having anything but a vintage year or the fact the Tigers were an Elite Eight team last year that brought nearly everyone back and added a star point guard.
In a lot of ways Cal loves those slights, loves those fights that can somehow turn a team with this much talent and tenacity into an underdog.
"The other night we play at UAB and Duke plays at Wake Forest," he starts in. "UAB is 11-0 at home and has a better RPI than Wake. Duke loses to them (by 13) and they drop in the polls from No. 2 to No. 4. If we had lost at the buzzer – at the buzzer! – we would have dropped to No. 22."
He's joking and exaggerating and going on and on, just being John Calipari, which means he's never better, never sharper than when he has something real or imagined to fight.
His program gets ripped for all sorts of off-court issues and always will. But it isn't much different than anyone else – last year when it met Ohio State in the Elite Eight, for instance, it wasn't the Tigers that were on NCAA probation and sporting the lower graduation rate.
For Cal, that's the absolute fuel that drives him. He's been all but taping the words of every pundit on television and radio, all but printing out the stories of every writer who is ripping on his team or picking Tennessee, or whatever slight he thinks they are conveying.
"You think we should make a tape of everything being said?" he asks an assistant before deciding his team doesn't need it.
Earlier though, in front of a crowd of reporters at the Tigers NBA-esque practice facility, he laid out a litany of loaded lines and motivational defenses. He called the Tigers the underdogs, said if the Tennessee legislator (which he considers pro UT) doesn't fund the University of Memphis more the city should "secede" and even had a barb at the referee crew.
"The star of the game (last year against UT) was the official that got Joey (Dorsey) out," he said. "He was the star of stars."
In 10 minutes he laid it all out, spun it all around and sent the pack of media home with more humorous stuff than they could print or show. It was a top-ranked type of performance.
In every way Memphis needs a game like this. In an effort to overcome the weakness of C-USA, Cal annually loads up the toughest non-conference slate he can, and the chance to meet UT in the biggest game in state history, with the entire country looking – not the ACC, Pac 10 or, indeed, Big East – is powerfully important.
"Look, as long as we can recruit here, recruit guys like Derrick Rose, then we're fine," he said. "And we can. You know what league recruits ask me about? The NBA."
Rose is Cal's latest super guard, a sure-bet lottery pick after the season despite being just a freshman. He'll be joined by swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts in the NBA Draft green room and then Calipari will go out and bring in some new guys, perhaps super recruit Tyreke Evans of Pennsylvania.
With this place, it's talent in, talent out – Calipari is undeniably a great coach selling a fast-paced style of play at a program in a NBA city that is actually more popular than the NBA team.
Ticket demand for the Tennessee game has hit local historic highs, wild internet asking prices rising to five figures. That's unlikely to find any takers, of course, but still.
"Let me say this to the fans, if you have the chance to pay for a year for your child's tuition, just make sure the person you sell it to is in blue," he joked. "I won't be disappointed. Besides, in 30 years you say I was at the game and who will know. …"
"This is an ego game," he said. "It's not March, one and done. It's not for the league championship. It's an ego game; ego for their fans and our fans, ego for their team and our team, ego for their staff and our staff.
"Hopefully our ego feels better at the end of the game."
There is a sense of stability around him, a belief that here, in his eighth season, he really is going to stay for the long haul; how he has this humming to the point where he's going to be in contention every year.
The conference thing has been overcome. It just isn't a factor except with the media. Four-and-a-half years after he and his program were left to die, four-and-a-half years after he doubled his efforts to thrive, he has a better program rolling than anyone.
"Bob Knight told me, 'you don't realize how good you have it here,'" Cal said. "But I do."
He looked around the restaurant, looked around the whole town he seemingly owns now on the eve of the biggest game in state history.