Meet Mrs. Cal, a Renaissance woman (with her own power tools)
By Joshua Caudill
After the gates open quietly off of a busy section of Richmond Road, the first noise comes from Palmer and McGruff, rushing out of the house to investigate. Duly alerted, waiting at the front door in a gray sweater over black pants and boots, is the First Lady of Kentucky basketball, Ellen Calipari.
Unlike her husband, Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari, Ellen doesn’t operate in the spotlight. She enjoys life behind the scenes as a mother of three and the beloved team mom to the Wildcats basketball roster.
Daughter Erin, now an assistant professor of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, remembers marveling at her mom’s ability to hold down the fort with young children while making sure the bills got paid, that the clothes were clean, the house was functioning, and that everyone was fed. According to Erin, if they were eating, it was thanks to Mom, because their dad only knows how to make French toast, milkshakes, and eggs.
“She looks like this tiny little adorable woman who’s so sweet, but she’s the fiercest, [most] independent, driven woman I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Erin says proudly of her mother. “Normally, people think of the female role model as getting her nails done. No, that’s my dad. My dad would take us to get our nails done. My mom was the one building furniture, teaching us how to use a table saw and a sander, and she’d see something in a magazine and she’d build it.”
Mrs. Cal’s handiwork includes a coffee table in the TV room and a console table down in the basement. She’s a renaissance woman with her own power tools. Her husband may be a hall of fame coach, but here, his daughters consider him Mr. Ellen Calipari.
Ellen says, “I grew up in a small town in rural Missouri and in a family where we did things that were creative and kind of made our own form of entertainment,” describing how she’d come by her love of learning how things work by watching her own dad work outside.
Erin says, “Our upbringing was so funny and reflective of how my sister and I function in society. My mom is very feminine but she’s not your prototypical woman. Anything that went wrong in the house, she could fix it. She was an amazing handyman, and my dad wouldn’t know how to change a light bulb if he had to. “
Ellen says of her early life as a Mom, running Erin to basketball games and Megan to softball, all while Brad was still an infant. “You have the financial stability, so you don’t have to worry about that, but you’re doing everything yourself. In Massachusetts, I
stacked the firewood, I mowed the yard, I painted the house, I did the landscaping — and a lot of that is I like to be the hands-on person and if I can do it, I don’t like to ask somebody else to do it for me. That’s just the way I grew up.”
The girls like to tease her about her reputation as the “No” parent. As Erin tells it, if they ever got a “maybe” from their mom, that was an exciting day. Even if they somehow secured an initial ‘Yes’ from their father, it was likely to be vetoed.
“For the most part, they probably never asked him and if he would’ve said, ‘yes’ I would have overruled that,” Ellen laughed. “I’m sure it would surprise a lot of people because he’s tough with the players but he’s spineless with our children. I’m the tough person.”
“I always wanted to be a mother and have always enjoyed being around my kids and being with my kids. They were never embarrassed to have me around when their friends were around which I appreciate,” Ellen says.
The peripatetic life of a head coach can be hard enough on grown ups, but being the new kid at school can seem like the end of the world.
“That did concern me,” Ellen admits, “because [growing up] I never had to move. Erin
was a year and a half the first time we moved. I always looked forward to going back to my parent’s house and we would go a couple of times a year. I think for my kids, it was such a refreshing escape from the life we lived (which was very much under a microscope).”
“As they got older, I would ask them, ‘What can I do to make this easier for you?’ because I never had to do it. Do we want to get a list of names from the school and try to call some kids that are going to be in your class? Do you want to go to the school and walk around in it before school starts?’ I just grasped at straws. I think you try to give them a sense of control over the situation that they’re helping make those decisions for themselves.”
For Erin, her mother was always the rock during the transitions. When her father took the head coaching job with the New Jersey Nets, Erin remembers being furious about the impending move. In an attempt to console her, she said her father told her if he made her move again, he’d build her a basketball court in the yard.
“Of course, two years later, he gets fired by the Nets and we move and I’m furious, ‘You’re making us move again? You’re building that basketball court!’ so they actually did,” Erin laughed. “They did things like that, which is huge and ridiculous, but they did that to make sure we were okay.”
Ellen doesn’t recall all the details as specifically, but she does laugh when she confirms, “We did have a full court basketball court in Memphis and here, we have a half court so I guess that shows you the respect that Brad got.”
But the pride the Caliparis take in their children is well reported.
Ellen says, “I admire my kids because I don’t know if I could’ve done what they’ve done with the upbringing they’ve had — to be a child of a public figure — but just the fact that the girls are very strong women, making their own way, doing completely different things, just fighting to be the best in their field,” Ellen said. “And for Brad too [who] went away to prep school, which I admired and in a way, it was hard for me but in a way, it wasn’t because it was his choice. [To] make the decision to come here and play for John was not an easy decision. I know he did his homework. I found out from our other players that he called them and asked how hard is it. So, I admire him for being able to make that decision. He didn’t come to Kentucky because it was an easy thing to do, because it was probably the hardest thing to do.”
There’s a true sense of closeness with the Caliparis. They’re very protective of each other but also love to tease one another especially on social media. The girls like to poke fun at their dad for not being tech savvy, John dishes it back and Ellen once trolled her son by dressing like him and re-enacting a photo he took.
Still to this day, they get a laugh remembering the story of when they made Megan, now
a chef, tried to cut the grass for the first time and how she thought brand new green Nike sneakers would be appropriate. Then her parents proceeded to laugh at her while she struggled to start the lawnmower. They also never let Megan forget about a past Mother’s Day experience where she wasn’t subtle at all about the surprise gift her mom was receiving.
“The only Mother’s Day gift I really remember that we always remind Megan of, is we were in Florida because May would usually be the only time John would have a little bit of time to go away so he had taken the girls to get flowers for me for Mother’s Day,” Ellen said. “When they came back in, Megan was like, ‘We didn’t get you flowers, Mom.’”
When the Calipari family moved to Lexington in 2009, Ellen knew
absolutely nothing about the area, but it grew on her quickly. She has an appreciation for the horse farms and enjoys a good dinner at Tony’s. She’s been to the Derby, but where she really thrives is the role of team mom.
She’s ‘Mrs. Cal’ to her husband’s players, serving as a mother figure and someone to lean on while they’re away from home for the first time in their lives.
There’s more caterers involved these days, of course, but early on, she would regularly make team meals for Coach Cal’s players. Those memories are still fresh in Erin’s mind, but what touched her the most was seeing her mom walk players out on Senior Night if their mothers weren’t able to be there.
Ellen says, “The first one I remember walking out was John Tate [UMass] and I love being able to do that,” adding, “I just came across some pictures the other day of when Erin was in high school and she had her Senior Night and Brad and I walked her out because John wasn’t there. I’m glad to be able to fill those shoes in a little way.”
Derek Willis, who played for the Wildcats from 2013-2017, was especially grateful entering his freshman season. “Right off the bat,” Willis says, “She made me feel welcome because I didn’t know anyone and I was pretty nervous. She’s just a great person to be around and as much credit as Coach Cal gets, she is deserving of every bit or more because she is putting up with his schedule and all of these kids coming in and out — that’s a lot.”
Willis saw Mrs. Cal’s selflessness on display when she caught up Bam Adebayo’s laundry after he got behind and was in desperate need of clean clothes. Karl Towns, who still texts Ellen, was also the occasional beneficiary of her laundry skills.
The Calipari’s have always been known for their open door policy. Ever since their days at UMass when the house was much smaller (and the kids would attempt to hide their Halloween candy from the players), Erin fondly recalls, “Having 10-12 siblings who would wreak havoc on your life but in a good way.”
During the season, the players will come over to the house in between two-a-days, she’ll make sure there are enough blankets and pillows for them to take naps between practices all throughout the house and load up on lots of food.
“Over Christmas break, we would go over there every day because we didn’t have school and we were doing two-a-days. We would have something to eat and then crash out. She was always around and if we were ever like, ‘Hey, is there some ketchup around here?’ or ‘Can I get something to drink?’ and she was super cool about it,” Willis said. “She was willing to do anything she could for you, just a good lady, a good host and a good mom.”
E.J. Floreal, who played for Calipari 2013- 2016, says, “That’s probably hard for a lot of people to open up their house to 15 strangers every year but the fact that she’s willing to do that and that we’re able to sleep there and feel at home or eat there… it’s just a place to be away from everybody. When you’re a Kentucky basketball player, it’s hard to get your alone time.”
For the NCAA Selection Show, Ellen and Coach Calipari always host it at their house but this year, there were talks of changing it up and watching it in the locker room instead. Ellen insisted on hosting it. She loves those moments because it’s like family to her.
“I like that and welcome that. I’d rather be around kids than adults any day,” Ellen said. “I choose to relate to kids and be sympathetic to kids. I’m not a social person. But kids are not judgmental. I’m sure when people drive by they have a preconceived notion of who you are and how you are and how you live and I think we break a lot of rules for those kinds of notions.”
Everyone from Big Blue Nation understands the reputation of Mrs. Cal’s fabled brownies that she gives to each player on his birthday. It’s probably one of her husband’s best pitches on the recruiting trail. (If it isn’t, it should be.)
Being a Midwest girl, Ellen used to be famous for her brisket, an old recipe she got from her mother. All of the kids loved it until Megan decided to go vegan. Nowadays, it’s all about the brownies.
“People approach me requesting the recipe and then proceed to tell me their recipe thinking I’m going to reciprocate,” she laughs. But, she explains, “it’s not about the brownies. It’s about the recipient. It just started [by] recognizing the fact that these are children and they’re away from home for the first time and they’re having a birthday and
a birthday should be special.”
“Especially with a lot of the guys whose families aren’t here, she’s just somebody that they can feel at home with,” Floreal said. “The biggest thing she does for sure, is on the birthdays. If the world forgets, at least you know Mrs. Cal remembers. She’ll bring you a nice plate of brownies to make sure you know somebody has your back.”
Each birthday batch is about three stacks high and they’re hoarded like gold. As Floreal tells it, “if you leave your brownies in your locker all day, odds are you’re going to be missing five or six when you come back…They will ask you for the brownies before they even tell you Happy Birthday,” Floreal said.
Brownies for the bday girl! Nice gesture from the players, who usually receive the same from Mrs. Cal on their bday pic.twitter.com/cFT40YxbOP
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 30, 2015
In the 2015-2016 season, the players got together and returned the gesture by making brownies for Ellen’s birthday and delivering them to her before a game against Illinois State. One by one, they each came by to hug her.
“The brownies were very good,” she admits, “but I’m more of a shy, introverted, self-conscious person and to do that in Rupp Arena, in front of everybody was a little embarrassing, I guess,” adding “But at the same time, it made my day and it was the first and only time that has ever happened — that I got brownies on my birthday.”
Floreal feels close to the family. He befriended Brad through their love for basketball and video games before he even came to Kentucky and joined the team. But what truly stood out to Floreal was how Mrs. Cal treated him when he left the basketball team to pursue track and field.
“For me, the biggest thing by far is when I switched sports,” Floreal said. “Instead of casting me away…every time I see her, she hugs me, I hug her, she asks how I’m doing, how’s track and how she can’t wait to see it work out. She showed me support even with the stretch. That’s real.”
Before Brad joined the Wildcats two years ago, Ellen stayed under the radar, but has now outed herself. She can be seen at every game usually wearing Brad’s jersey and cheering on the team.
Erin, who likes to refer to herself as being the first Italian son for 10 years until Brad was born, says her mother was “pumped” that her son is so close to home where she can keep an eye on him and make sure he’s okay and yes, still comes over to do laundry. “My mom is in heaven. She gets to see her husband coach and watch her son play. It’s a family thing now,” Erin said.
“It’s been really good to watch them and it’s nice to hear everybody cheer him on when he gets in the game,” Ellen says. “I’ve learned from Brad too that it’s hard to sit on the bench for two hours and go in cold and make a shot.”
Mrs. Cal has no complaints about empty nest syndrome. Now she has time for Grace and Frankie (she’s the more Netflix savvy of the two), and bringing the dogs to visit Coach at practice. Morning trips for puppuccinos are a regular part of the couple’s routine when he’s not with the team. She has more time for travel now (she still follows him on Twitter to see what recruiting trip he’s on), going to the shooting range, practicing her woodworking and recently, getting to go on her first ride along.
UK’s basketball program owes much of its success to Mrs. Cal’s role as First Lady and team mom. Floreal speaks for BBN when he says, “this program would not be the same without her and Coach Cal wouldn’t be the same without her either. She plays as big of a role. She’s an integral part of what happens here. She deserves a big ‘thank you’ for all of the stuff she does.”
As she welcomes new kids into the Calipari family every season, showing them the love, the support (and yes, the brownies), she’s still just Mom to Erin, Megan and Brad, a role that she cherishes most.
“Spend time with your kids,” she says. “Do kid things with your kids. I always got out and played. Nothing was beneath me. Just enjoy it. It goes so fast and it should be so fun.”
This article also appears on page 6 of the April 2018 print edition of Ace.
Subscribe to the Ace e-dition for Lexington news, arts, culture, food, and entertainment news delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning.
Call today to advertise in Ace.