Ellen Calipari: A resourceful matriarch to her family— and to the UK basketball team

Ellen Calipari sits in her sunroom and talks about the coffee table she built herself. She said that the table opens, resembling a coffin– large enough to fit her husband John Calipari, she joked. 

Ellen Calipari stood at her worktable, looking through her tools to find the Dremel tool her husband bought her.

For the last 30 years or so, she’s had a passion for woodworking, making products from serving trays to the coffee table in her sunroom.

“I have a lot of power tools,” she said.

Her current worktable, which she admitted is a little too tall for her, was built by the father of former UK basketball player Brian Long, representing another important part of her life— being like a mom to the basketball players coached by her husband.

Ellen described herself as “very normal.”

“Probably not what people would think,” she said. “I live a very normal life.”

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‘A tough lady’

John and Ellen’s eldest daughter Erin said she thinks many people would be surprised to learn more about her mom, who is probably most often seen on the Rupp Arena sidelines wearing her son Brad’s jersey.

“My mom’s this adorable, tiny woman, who’s always put together, and she always has her hair done, her makeup done, her outfits are perfect,” Erin said. “Then you talk to her and she’s like the sassiest, wittiest person of all time.”

Erin described her mother as “one of the most resourceful people” she has ever met. It seems to be well understood in the Calipari family that if someone gets a flat tire, the first call is to Ellen, not John.

“My mom can change a tire, change the oil— my dad doesn’t know how to do any of that stuff,” Erin said. “Part of the reason he’s so successful is because my mom is so good at doing everything else.”

In addition to woodworking, Ellen said she is always looking for projects to work on, from working in the yard to painting the laundry room. She also enjoys shooting handguns, which she has to keep her husband away from, she joked.

Ellen said her sister-in-law got her into woodworking, and she started out small. Now, however, she is most proud of the bigger pieces she’s done, “because it’s more of a challenge.”

One of her more complex projects was a TV console, which she patterned off of something she saw in a Pottery Barn catalog.

“I thought, oh, too cheap to buy that, so I can make it,” she said.

Ellen said that looking back now, she doesn’t know how she managed to work on these projects when her three children were young, but Erin remembers her “doing that stuff all the time” when she was a kid.

“She was so resourceful and fixed all these things, but seeing her do this kind of stuff… it really taught me that I can do anything and I can figure anything out and no one can tell me otherwise,” Erin said.

‘Mama Cal’

For the last two seasons, Ellen has actually been the mother of one of her husband’s players, but she has been functioning in the mom role for far longer.

She said she tries to be like a mom to the players, “without pushing myself on them.”

Despite the prevalence of basketball in her life, Ellen said she is definitely not a sports fan.

“I get in it from the mom side of it; these are my guys and I’m there to support them,” she said. “I don’t do it for the love of basketball; I do it because I know how hard they’re working.”

While her daughter describes her as “a tough lady,” Ellen sometimes sees herself as more of a calming presence in comparison to her husband John— “a balance to his craziness” when it comes to his coaching style, she said.

She said she isn’t afraid to tell her husband if he’s yelling at any one player too much— last year it was Wenyen Gabriel, she said.

From practices to classes to tutoring sessions, the players have lots of responsibility, which Ellen understands.

“So I try to be the fun person once in a while,” she said.

She said sometimes the younger players don’t quite know what to call her. Sometimes she’s called “Mama Cal,” but to most of them, she is Mrs. Cal, she said.

The Calipari family has joked about its own nicknames: Back in October of 2017, the Caliparis’ younger daughter Megan quoted a Kentucky Basketball tweet and added: “We actually call our dad Mr. Ellen Calipari.”

‘Not about the brownies’

Anyone who follows John Calipari or many of his basketball players on Twitter understands the phenomenon of Ellen’s birthday brownies. On March 26, he tweeted happy birthday to Gabriel, adding, “I know Mrs. Cal is at home baking your birthday brownies today.”

Ellen said she cannot divulge her secret recipe, even though she is asked for it often.

“It’s not about the brownies, it’s about the recipient,” she said. “It’s about the players, and it’s about that recognition about it being their special day.”

She said boys are less likely to tell others it’s their birthday than girls are, so she’s the one who draws the team’s attention to a birthday.

A few weeks ago, she dropped the brownies off for Gabriel but didn’t get a chance to deliver them personally.

“I don’t know when they’re in and out of the gym at this point, or else I would’ve taken them and gotten a hug from him,” she said.

Erin said nobody can make brownies like her mom.

“It’s really nice to see my mom be such a great mom to us, while also kind of taking care of (the players) in the same way, which is sweet,” Erin said. “These kids are like 18 years old, away from home, so I’m sure it makes them feel good to have someone who actually really, truly cares about them.”

Ellen said she has been making birthday brownies since her husband was coaching at Memphis, when the idea “dawned” on her.

‘No one holds a candle to her’

Ellen said the women in her family— her grandmothers and aunts— are her female role models.

As the movement continues for women to speak up for themselves, Ellen said, “I always felt like it was okay to speak up and be your own person.”

She said she is proud that her daughters are the same way and have chosen the careers that they have— Megan is a pastry chef and Erin runs a lab at Vanderbilt.

“(They) are very independent women, and they’re both the progressive women who have gotten married and kept their last name— which doesn’t mean anything, but they’re not afraid to stand up for what’s right and do it in a way that’s a good way to do it, so I’m happy for that,” Ellen said.

Ellen said her main focus has always been being a mom and protecting her kids, especially since they had to move around so much.

Erin said that Ellen was basically both mom and dad while John was traveling to coach. Moving around so much made them a closer family, she said.

When the family moved to Memphis, John picked out the new house all by himself, Erin said. She described it as a beautiful house, but there were busts of women on the wall that the family found weird.

“So then my mom thought one year— this was like the first year we were there— it would be hilarious to dress these statue ladies that no one likes up for Halloween. So she put these terrible stick-on mustaches on them,” Erin said.

Those mustaches stayed for the next seven years or so, Erin said.

Ellen said she tried to give her children as normal a life as she could while they were growing up “in the public eye.”

Now, Ellen herself is stepping more into the public eye, whereas she used to be more reserved, Erin said.

“It makes me really happy to see her kind of owning who she is because I think she’s awesome,” Erin said.

Erin, nearly in tears as she talked about her mom, said Ellen sacrificed a ton to take care of the family while still finding time to do her own thing— like her woodworking.

“I think (she’s) one of the best role models I’ve ever come in contact with,” Erin said. “I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant people in my life, but my mom… no one holds a candle to her.”