Friday was a day of long lunch breaks as a few thousand people gathered on the Old Capitol lawn to welcome Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari to Frankfort.
Fresh of his first national basketball championship, Calipari rode into town around noon waving from the back of a bright red train car as part of a statewide tour.
The crowd cheered as he held the trophy aloft, the UK fight song booming in the background from the Franklin County High School band.
“It’s like a 1948 political tour,” Calipari mused as the took the stage, thanking Rick Corman, founder of the R.J. Corman Railroad Group in Nicholasville, for the ride through Central Kentucky.
People began arriving more than an hour early for a spot, some bringing lawn chairs for the wait. The fans ranged from infants to the elderly – there were even a few dogs sporting UK blue leashes.
Afterward on Twitter, Calipari estimated the crowd at between 4,000 and 5,000 and made a couple of Frankfort-related shout-outs.
“Special thanks to the Franklin County Band for playing in Frankfort, and thanks to Buddy’s Pizza for the pizza. It was delicious,” he said.
After speaking a bit about his championship team, Calipari took photos with the fans, as they filed through in groups of 20.
“We’re going to try to do this…” Calipari said, as he started to explain the logistics of snapping photos with thousands of fans.
Some guys in the crowd interrupted “Repeat! Repeat!” to cheers and laughter from their fellow fans.
“Can you please let me enjoy this for like, two weeks?” Calipari said in response.
The Big Blue Nation brought along cameras and notepads, basketballs and hats for autographs, but Calipari declined to give out his signature. It didn’t seem to dampen the mood.
“I was right beside him. Literally,” said a fifth-grader from Clay Elementary School in Webster County as he left the photo line.
His friend was underwhelmed by his buddy’s brush with fame.
“Oh yeah, well he touched me on the shoulder.”
The kids were from one of several school groups that attended Friday’s event. Classes from Second Street School walked together to the Old Capitol lawn, some sporting UK symbols on their cheeks or Anthony Davis-style unibrows drawn with a blue marker.
“How did you guys get out of school?” Calipari asked at one point, as he began to notice all the kids in the crowd. “If they ask you students, you say the governor asked for you to be at this meeting today.”
LRC coworkers Linda Barnes, Suzanne Wilkins and Barbara Booze said it was worth braving the crowds to get a glimpse of the trophy, Calipari and his wife, Ellen.
“It was exciting, but we were afraid we wouldn’t get here and get close, and we were afraid we wouldn’t get our picture,” Barnes said.
Wilkins said the women worked until after midnight yesterday, as the legislature worked late to wrap up its last day of the regular session. She said they got about four hours of sleep last night, but are “dedicated fans” and couldn’t miss the rally.
“This gives everybody in the state a chance to see this trophy and get a picture with him,” Booze said, as they headed back to work.
“I’ve never seen a coach do this, ever before. He is really compassionate and caring coach – he’s just for the people and wants the players and the people to be able to enjoy it.”
Nick Janca, Alex Prado and Zane Stone, all 16-year-old sophomore members of the Franklin County High School band, said they were invited just yesterday to perform at the event.
They said they had to learn the UK fight song “in about five minutes,” but were excited to play it in front of so many people. Afterward they got their picture taken with Calipari, instruments still in hand.
“We’re grateful that our band got to go,” Prado said. “We wish Western Hills would have been here with us, but we’re grateful we got to come.”
Gov. Steve Beshear, first lady Jane Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson met Calipari at the Old Capitol.
Beshear congratulated Calipari for being “the best coach in the nation” and leading a team that “worked unselfishly to bring the trophy back to Kentucky.”
“In most places, basketball is a sport,” Beshear said. “In Kentucky, I think it’s a religion – but it fits well with our other religion, amen.”
Businesses along Broadway got into the spirit of the event too.
Capital Cellars employees grilled Kentucky-themed burgers and brats, and Poor Richard’s Books advertised a special edition of Sports Illustrated about the win.
The trophy tour continues to Elizabethtown and Western Kentucky today. The trophy will make appearances at Verizon stores in Lexington and Louisville Saturday.