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By LARRY VAUGHT
For those nationally who wonder why coach John Calipari is so popular in Kentucky and why UK fans are so passionate about him, just look at what the Kentucky coach did Thursday and Friday.
He spent almost two full days traveling about 1,000 miles from Ashland to Paducah â€” with a lot of stops in between â€” with his staff showing off the national championship trophy to fans.
Friday he rode into Frankfort on a train waving to a crowd of an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 fans that cheered as the Franklin County High School band played the Kentucky fight song.
â€œItâ€™s like a 1948 political tour,â€ said Calipari.
Actually, it was probably more like a 2012 rock star tour. Everywhere Calipari went, people came. Fans were lined up at the Kroger parking lot in Owensboro Friday hours before he came. It was the same in Pikeville Thursday.
Fans wanted to see Calipari â€” and the trophy, too.
These were fans who donâ€™t have season tickets to Rupp Arena to watch UK. These were fans who couldnâ€™t afford to make the trip to New Orleans for the Final Four to watch UK beat Louisville and Kansas to win the national title. No, these were fans who simply love the Wildcats and couldnâ€™t wait to see and/or touch the trophy and Calipari.
The coach even had a plan to make sure every fan could get a picture with him and the trophy. Rather than line up for individual shots, he put 20 to 30 fans in a group photo that they could order online for their special keepsake.
Someone in the crowd at Frankfort even suggested â€œrepeatâ€ after Calipariâ€™s arrival.
â€œCan you please let me enjoy this for like, two weeks?â€ Calipari joked back to the fan.
It was that kind of two-day event. Kentucky fans who brought basketballs and hats to autograph didnâ€™t even seem to mind that Calipari didnâ€™t sign autographs to make sure as many pictures as possible were taken.
The coachâ€™s sense of history has to be touching to many older UK fans as well. He brought Herky Rupp, the son of legendary UKâ€ˆcoach Adolph Rupp with him Friday. He also had former Kentucky coach Joe Hall, who led UKâ€ˆto the 1978 national championship, on the tour with him Friday.
â€œIt was just amazing,â€ Hall said. â€œI was thrilled he asked me to be part of it, but to see how excited the fans were was really special.â€
Gov. Steve Beshear, first lady Jane Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson met Calipari in Frankfort. Beshear congratulated Calipari for being â€œthe best coach in the nationâ€ and leading a team that â€œworked unselfishly to bring the trophy back to Kentuckyâ€ â€” statements UK fans certainly would not dispute.
â€œIn most places, basketball is a sport,â€ Beshear said. â€œIn Kentucky, I think itâ€™s a religion. But it fits well with our other religion, amen.â€
Especially when John Calipari is the one delivering the message the way he does.