John Calipari and Rick Pitino reverse roles for a Kentucky-Louisville Final Four showdown
You can already hear it in their comments. You can already easily read it between the lines.
John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals don’t meet until Saturday in the Final Four, but the signs are evident that this isn’t just the latest flare-up of their long-simmering rivalry, or even just an historic, high-stakes meeting between two programs bitterly opposed to each other.
That, alone, will make this one of the most anticipated, heated and intense college basketball games ever played.
There’s more though: for the first time since the Pitino-Calipari relationship deteriorated a couple decades back, the roles and stakes for these two big coaching personalities have completely flipped.
Pitino, 59, was always the older brother; more successful, more established and more polished – the flawlessly attired New Yorker. He spent forever trying to downplay their relationship and ignore Calipari’s yapping. He did it mostly by projecting an image that whatever he was doing was automatically bigger than anything Calipari could dream up.
Calipari, 53, was the incessant distraction, the blue-collar Pittsburgh product always looking for the fight, for the tweak, for a sign he mattered even as he coached less-resource rich programs. A battle with Pitino would signify they shared an equal stage.
And then we get to this week, Kentucky still the tournament’s heavy favorite, Louisville the closest thing to a surprise in the Final Four. So they’re trying to perform the other’s old act.
Calipari: “Don’t worry about Louisville … Don’t worry about them. Let’s just worry about us. That’s what I’m trying to get across to our fans. I’m just worried about us playing at our best. If that’s not good enough, it’s been a heck of a season.”
Pitino: “There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. You’ve got to watch. They’ve got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”
Oh, Pitino has to love this script change. For once he’s the underdog. For once he’s the guy playing with house money, taking a Louisville team few saw coming a month ago to a Final Four that has his fan base elated. Pitino said, and will continue to say, plenty of calm, complimentary words about UK, but he couldn’t (and likely can’t) resist throwing in some thinly veiled shots.
After all, he’s got the chance to ruin Kentucky’s dream season in a way it’s never been ruined before. By having a former coach and a less-talented team derail a long-presumed national championship.
The mere concept puts Calipari under a world of pressure. An actual loss would be devastating.
This is Kentucky’s tournament to win and everyone knows it. This is Calipari’s turn to finally take it all. He’s no scrapper anymore, trying to cobble together a contender with maybe one superstar (Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose) and a collection of good but not great parts.
He runs Big Blue, the program Pitino once owned and called “the Roman Empire of college basketball.” He’s got the most breathtaking team anyone has seen in years. He’s got a slew of first round picks, including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His massive fan base expects nothing less than a net clipping ceremony in New Orleans.
Failure isn’t really an option.
Calipari spent his career chasing Pitino and Pitino kept trying to run from him. How close they used to be is a matter of perspective and at this point no one either knows or will admit the truth.
It is believed to be true Pitino recommended Massachusetts, his alma mater, hire Calipari back in 1988 and even cut a $5,000 check to help. At least, Pitino used to tell that story, although of late he doesn’t.
What’s undeniably true is it was mostly downhill from there.
Pitino always had these glorious jobs and these well-oiled teams. He was the golden boy, handed the keys to Kentucky and the Knicks and the Celtics and finally Louisville. This will be his sixth Final Four at three schools. He’s won a national title at UK. He’s coached scores of blue blood stars. For years he was the picture of professionalism.
Cal was always trying kick down some door with one these unlikely teams, UMass, Memphis or the New Jersey Nets; trying to bulldoze his way to the top. He was always surrounded by drama or feuds, most of them his own carefully planned creation. Cal’s M.O. has always been to look around for the biggest guy on the block to fight and then fight him.
Might be John Chaney. Might be Jim Calhoun. Might be Pitino.
[Dan Wetzel: Final Four-bound Buckeyes take cue from coach]
To those focused on stereotypes, they were similar: two Type-A Italians from the East Coast.
To anyone who knew both men, there was little in common.
Pitino once wrote a self-help book that claimed, “Success is a Choice.” Cal wrote one about how to “Bounce Back” from getting repeatedly knocked down, beaten up and even fired.
Now it’s Cal at the program where success is seemingly a choice. And it’s Pitino who no longer has that perfectly tailored reputation, who had to rebuild everything after the tawdry revelations of the Karen Sypher extortion trial made even a couple of vacated Final Fours seem like nothing.
[Jeff Passan: Louisville is in the Final Four thanks to an unlikely player]
It’s Pitino who’s up from the bootstraps with this roller coaster team (30-9) that lost four of its last six regular-season games only to hit an epic hot streak that maybe no one saw coming. It’s Pitino who can press the buttons and slyly joke that if Calipari blows it this time there will be mass suicides in the Commonwealth.
So now it’s Calipari trying to hold together the unstoppable juggernaut (36-2) that is expected to not just win but win big, to try to downplay Rick and Louisville and focus on the bigger task at hand.
All these years later and it’s new acts for old rivals and fresh pressure in fresh places.
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