Handshakes are optional on Saturday.
When two of the coaching icons of college basketball match wits in the Final Four, there will be no pregame conversation or postgame hugs. Rick Pitino of Louisville and John Calipari of Kentucky don’t send each other Christmas cards.
It wasn’t always that way. When Pitino was a 20-year-old counselor at summer basketball camp 39 years ago, Calipari was a 14-year camper Pitino befriended. Their relationship was solid enough that Pitino later convinced the University of Massachusetts, his alma mater, to give Calipari has first head coaching job. Legend has it that Pitino even kicked in $5,000 to close the deal.
The Calipari camp now insists that didn’t happen.
What has happened during the years is the erosion of a relationship. Nobody is really sure why, other than the prevailing theory that the build-up to the 1996 Final Four, when Pitino was coaching Kentucky and Calipari was at UMass, led to a growing distrust of each other.
Pitino won the game, 81-74, and went on to win the national championship over Syracuse at the then-Continental Arena in the Meadowlands.
What makes their breakup even more curious is that Pitino and Calipari are a lot alike. They’re committed to their jobs. They demand a lot of themselves and their players. They’re accomplished recruiters. They are the only coaches to lead three schools to Final Fours: Pitino with Providence, Kentucky and Louisville, and Calipari with Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky. They’re the top two paid coaches in the country: Pitino No. 1 and Calipari No. 2, just ahead of Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, who has a lot more national championships.
The only difference may be Pitino’s penchant for $800 Italian suits. Calipari is a little less stylish.
Their recruiting experiences are legend.
Pitino’s first job was an assistant at Syracuse. When Jim Boeheim called him and asked him to go to Chicago to recruit Louis Orr, who later became a Knick and Seton Hall’s coach, Pitino left his wife behind in Hawaii — where they were honeymooning. Then there was the published report, which Calipari supporters insist is false, that when a recruit told Cal, then a young assistant at Pittsburgh, that he decided he was going to attend St. John’s, Calipari told the teenager that he shouldn’t because Lou Carnesecca had cancer. Which, of course, he didn’t.
The story, true or false, adds to Calipari’s reputation as a Jerry Tarkanian-like rebel. Massachusetts and Memphis each had to vacate its Final Four appearance because of recruiting violations that occurred on Cal’s watch. But when the sanctions went down, Calipari was gone — from Massachusetts to the Nets and from Memphis to Kentucky.
Now he and Pitino face each other in a yearly regular-season game, which Kentucky won this season. There are Kentucky fans who still feel Pitino was a traitor for leaving Lexington for his ill-fated run with the Boston Celtics. So you can imagine the atmosphere in the Bluegrass state as the Final Four approaches.
There are no NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball teams in Kentucky. There’s horse racing and college basketball. And with the Kentucky Derby still five weeks away, basketball is all consuming.
“There will be people that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” Pitino said Saturday after the Cardinals rallied to beat Florida in the West regional final. “They’ve got to put fences on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”
Including Calipari, who has more than a million Kentucky fans following him on Twitter. After his near-miss at Memphis, he is consumed with winning his first national championship. He’s a better coach than his critics give him credit for, and he remarkably gets his McDonald’s All-Americans, who usually stay only for one season, to play hard, especially defensively.
Calipari has more talent than Pitino has. This is the same Louisville team that lost to Providence, the 15th best team in the 16-team Big East, by 31 on Jan. 10. Pitino has done one of his best coaching jobs.
Calipari, however, has the talent. Should Cal get the best of him and go on to win his elusive national championship, Pitino will have to wait for next season’s regular-season game, provided Calipari doesn’t jump to the NBA (Knicks?).
Pitino insists he’s not going anywhere. Except maybe to give Calipari a cold-fish congratulatory handshake after Saturday’s game.