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Facebook and Twitter Keep Calipari Ahead of the Game

Thayer Evans|The New York Times

When Kentucky Coach John Calipari was talking to a group of 15 Chinese basketball coaches at his home last November, one pointed to Calipari’s hulking German shepherd, Dash.

Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Getty Images

Through an interpreter, she asked Calipari, “Is that the mean and nimble one?”

Calipari was stunned.

“How do you know about the mean and nimble one?” Calipari asked.

“Twitter and Facebook,” she said.

The exchange demonstrated that Calipari’s social networking spans worldwide. And as his top-seeded Wildcats (34-2) have shown in the N.C.A.A. tournament entering Thursday’s game in the East Region semifinals against No. 12 seed Cornell (29-4), the competition is not close.

Calipari has 1,113,647 followers on Twitter, 138,325 fans on Facebook, and his Coach Cal application for the iPhone and iPod touch sold more than 6,000 applications in its first month, making it the top paid sports application on iTunes less than a week after its debut last month.

His Web site, CoachCal.com, which went up in July, receives more than 100,000 page views each week. It has been visited by people from more than 100 countries, even Kyrgyzstan, which borders China.

Calipari, who was first encouraged by Indiana Coach Tom Crean to become active on Twitter, says social networking helps him connect with Kentucky fans, who are famously rabid.

“If you’re not doing it, you’re behind,” said Calipari, who had 1,300 people wish him happy birthday in 25 minutes on Facebook last month.

Some of the money made from the Coach Cal application and his Web site go to the nonprofit Calipari Family Foundation for Children. His technological platforms have also been instrumental in his other philanthropic ventures like the “Hoops for Haiti” telethon in January, which raised $1.3 million.

There was also a promotion with Papa John’s in which customers entered a code so that $1 of each pizza purchase would go to Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which received $63,000, said Dave Scott, who co-wrote Calipari’s book, “Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life.” The promotion was used in every state; only 25 percent of the participants were from Kentucky.

The results of Calipari’s efforts to raise money through technology have been a step in revamping his often controversial image of a coach who took Memphis and Massachusetts to the Final Four, but both programs were ordered to give up their victories in those seasons because of N.C.A.A. violations.

“He’s using it for good, not evil,” Scott said. “There’s ways to use it not just to keep people informed, but to get people to realize that this is bigger than basketball.”

It is even more amazing considering that the 51-year-old Calipari does not use a computer and struggles to type on his Blackberry. He is helped in his technological adventures by Scott, who moved to Lexington from the Boston area when Calipari was hired in April.

During the season, Scott often spends 18 hours a day on Calipari’s Web site and overseeing his Facebook page. He also assists with Calipari’s Twitter feed along with DeWayne Peevy, Kentucky’s associate athletic director of media relations.

Their tweets for Calipari carry their initials, but a majority are made by Calipari. In the past week, he has discussed how to buy tickets to the East Region, raved about eating barbecue shrimp, escargot and an “unreal split pea and shrimp soup” in New Orleans, and asked his followers to send text messages to vote for point guard John Wall as Naismith Player of the Year.

“It’s the Obama transparency theory,” Scott said. “Let people in and show them what’s going on.”

And when Kentucky was in New York earlier this season, Calipari tweeted that he planned to attend mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He did not specify which service he would attend, but when he showed up for the noon Mass, he was greeted by a teenage fan who had waited through three earlier services to get his autograph.

“Hey, I knew you’d be here,” the boy told Calipari.

Calipari’s latest venture into social networking is Lexy.com, an emerging technology billed as an audio version of Twitter and Facebook. Less than two weeks ago, he started doing daily recordings from his phone that fans can listen to. As of this week, 8,500 people had signed up for Calipari’s Lexy feeds, Scott said.

“He wants to be on the cutting edge,” Scott said. “He wants to see things that are new and try them out. If they work, stick with them. If they don’t, tweak them and try to make them work.”

And although Calipari said he was not sure how much of an effect his social networking has on recruiting, his players have taken notice. Forward Patrick Patterson said he was shocked when Calipari tweeted that he had missed an appointment with the Grammy-nominated rapper Drake.

Drake said he admired Calipari’s social networking presence, noting that he has only 526,017 followers on Twitter.

“He’s way bigger than me,” Drake said. “He’s a legend. He’s a leader of the Blue Nation. I bow down to him and his followers. I’m just one of the many.”

For all of Calipari’s success, there have been setbacks. In May, he called out an ESPN.com columnist on Twitter and later apologized. When Calipari publicized on his Facebook last September that he intended to send a Kentucky jersey to President Obama, some users made profanity-laden comments that led to the post being deleted.

“Some things you don’t touch, and politics is probably one of them,” Scott said.

And Calipari is always looking for ways to reach more people. He plans to start a Chinese version of CoachCal.com.

China only trails the United States in visitors to his current Web site, Scott said. And there other Chinese visitors can also read about “the mean and nimble one.”