‘So much more than winning games:’ Coach Cal’s off-court charity work leaves legacy.

‘So much more than winning games:’ Coach Cal’s off-court charity work leaves legacy.

Father Norman Fischer met John Calipari shortly after the basketball coach arrived in Lexington from Memphis.

As pastor of St. Peter Claver Church on Fourth Street and chaplain at Lexington Catholic High School, Fischer and other clergy were excited to have a devout and practicing Catholic in such a big role.

They found that when it came to helping others, the University of Kentucky coach also practiced what they preached.

Calipari soon splashed into the charitable scene in 2010 with his Hoops for Haiti event, a telethon with the basketball team that raised $1.3 million for Haitian earthquake victims, scoring Calipari an Emmy nomination and a call from then-President Barack Obama.

Soon after, St. Peter Claver awarded Calipari its HOPE Award (Healing, Openness to others, Perseverance and Excellence).

From then on, Fischer relied on Calipari as someone who would help him in numerous small, big, and unpublicized ways. Coach would autograph basketballs for school and church fundraisers, or send a personalized video message to folks who were struggling. Some of Fischer’s parishioners were included in the Christmas with the Wildcats and got a giant TV or a new bed as gifts.

“What I like about him was that he allowed basketball to be a medium for so much more than winning games,” Fischer said. “He wanted people to understand it’s about being generous and of good character and working hard.”

Coach Cal drew plenty of criticism while in Kentucky — from his $8 million paycheck to his coaching style to his flashy media overexposure. But both in front of cameras and behind it, Calipari and his wife, Ellen, leave behind a large footprint of charitable giving in Lexington and across Kentucky at a time it was beset by a pandemic and epic natural disasters.

That work has happened wherever Calipari coaches: Be it UMass, the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, the University of Memphis, Lexington. Now, Arkansas will be the beneficiary of a philosophy inspired by Calipari’s mother, Donna.

“My mother taught me to pay it forward,” the UK coach told the Herald-Leader in 2020. “That was her mantra, and I’ve never forgotten it.

“If I see someone who needs help, I know I can’t save the world. But if there is something I think we can be involved in and leverage others to be involved, I try to do it.”

In 2012, the Calipari Foundation gave $10,000 to work with Blessings in a Backpack to feed children in Hazard. In 2020, the foundation gave $75,000 to target communities across Kentucky.

“John Calipari and The Calipari Foundation has been a true partner in feeding childhood hunger,” said Beth Bush, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Blessings in a Backpack in Louisville. “Because of Coach Cal’s accountable and giving brand of support to the Blessings in a Backpack mission since 2012, we’ve witnessed through crayon-inspired thank you notes and toothless smiles every ounce of support is appreciated and needed.”

In 2020, Calipari started a Facebook Live segment called “Coffee with Cal” to serve as a national fundraiser for COVID-19 relief.

“I want to do something that is uplifting and creates hope and gives people ideas of what to do for the next month,” he said. “We’re going to have some great guests on (the program). … We want to answer questions (and) structuring your day is so important to keep going thinking ahead and staying in the moment of … let’s get through today and let’s make this the greatest day we can make it.”

Calipari also paired up with Samaritan’s Feet, a North Carolina charity aimed at bringing shoes to needy areas around the world. After both tornadoes in Western Kentucky and flooding in Eastern Kentucky, Cal and his players trekked to devastated areas, bringing shoes to — and washing the feet of — people who had lost everything.

On one trip to Eastern Kentucky, they gave away 10,000 pairs of shoes.

Coffee with Cal also coincided with murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. After Coffee with Cal had raised $1 million, he announced the show was going to focus on systemic racism. He brought guests, including former players, to talk about how they’d been affected and what needed to be done.

At the same time, he announced a Minority Leadership Initiative to bring more people of color into more athletics administration, saying that his successful career was largely due to Black players.

As Lexington Urban League president P.G. Peeples told former Herald-Leader reporter Jerry Tipton: “He’s one of those guys honest enough to say we need to do more for African Americans because we made our living off them.”