This entrée is high Cal
NEWARK, N.J. – That John Calipari and Jim Calhoun would wind up in a bitter feud was inevitable once Calipari showed up at Massachusetts in the late 1980s, after Calhoun’s Connecticut program had been established as a New England power.
The coaches are as alike as they are different – both ultra-competitive, hard-driving, self-made success stories who tend to thrive on slights, real or imagined. Then along came Marcus Camby out of Hartford, Conn., in 1993. In that area of the world, he was a once-in-a-generation recruit (there hasn’t been anything like him out of New England since).
Calipari landed him. Calhoun fumed. And any chance they’d ever be friends was good and over.
Now the rival coaches will meet years later with everything at stake. Calipari is at Kentucky now, but part of what will fire up the Wildcats’ Final Four game against UConn on Saturday can be traced back a couple of decades.
“[Our relationship] is fine,” Calipari said Sunday after UK put together a brilliant 76-69 victory over North Carolina to win the East Region. “Look, I respect him and what he does. We don’t send cards to each other. [But] if I see him on the road, [it’s,] ‘Hey, man, how are you doing?’ He’s a Hall-of-Famer. He’s done great things over his career.
“As you get older …” Calipari shrugged in an effort to say old bygones can be forgiven and he no longer has the energy for personal rivalries. “… I’m like the old coach. I used to be the young guy. Now I need to go to bed by 9.”
The true state of their relationship will be rehashed all week, of course, a delicious subplot to a game between two white-hot clubs. Maybe all (or most) has been forgiven. Maybe not. At one point, both men tried to crush each other. At every point, neither has shied away from a fight with anyone – their list of rivals is lengthy.
“These are highly competitive people,” former UMass athletic director Bob Marcum said. “Of course they would clash. Calhoun had lifted UConn up. Calipari had lifted UMass up. And they were vying for the recruits and media in the New England area.”
The intriguing part of this rivalry is that the coaches have rarely met. Calhoun discontinued the series with UMass early in Calipari’s tenure there. On the day in 1996 it was to be renewed, Calipari took a job coaching the New Jersey Nets and stood up Calhoun at a news conference, an empty chair in his place.
Since then Calipari is 2-1 against Calhoun (winning once with Memphis and once with UK), but it was the Huskies who dominated in November at the Maui Classic, winning 84-67.
“It was  going on 50,” Calipari said. “I was outcoached badly and I told Jim Calhoun after, ‘You did a fabulous job.’ Their game plan, how he coached the game, the timeouts he called – they never lost control of the game. I was the JV coach.”
It is clear Calipari wants the rivalry behind him and would prefer the week of hype to focus on the Kentucky and Connecticut players. Calhoun will speak to his feelings later this week.
It’s telling, though, that when they finally meet in the Final Four, it’s with teams that few believed would get there.
UConn went to the NIT a year ago and was picked to finish 10th in the preseason Big East poll. Kentucky lost five players to the NBA and many saw this as a transitional year to 2011-12, when another load of top talent comes in.
While both have sensational star players (Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight in particular), their teams are here because Calhoun and Calipari helped develop role players and overlooked returnees. These are some of the best coaching efforts of their careers.
Both made it in this business by kicking down doors, building up programs and refusing to apologize for any of it.
Calhoun is a tough Irishman from Massachusetts, who started as a suburban Boston high school coach. In a business where belonging to a famous coaching tree is so important, he simply willed himself to two NCAA titles and the Hall of Fame. How tough is he? In June 2009, a month after his 67th birthday, he fell off his bike during a charity ride, breaking five ribs. He refused to quit and rode 16 more miles to the finish line.
Calipari, 52, meanwhile, is a workaholic Italian out of western Pennsylvania, the son of an airline baggage handler who thrives on battles of class and exceeding socioeconomic expectations. He scrapped and clawed his way to a pinnacle job at Kentucky.
Both had to overcome barriers and barbs from the establishment. These aren’t the chosen ones. They’ve repeatedly crashed the party anyway.
“Coach Calhoun never gets the credit he deserves,” Marcum said. “And Coach Calipari doesn’t either.”
Their pursuit of victory has led to plenty of controversy; their semifinal game could be sponsored by Bond, Schoeneck and King.
Calipari has had two previous trips to the Final Four (1996 with UMass and 2008 with Memphis) vacated because of agent activity and a questionable SAT score, respectively. Calhoun was cited by the NCAA this year for having a booster funnel money to a recruit, causing the program to lose scholarships, two assistants to lose their jobs and Calhoun to face a three-game suspension next season. Previously, the NCAA vacated UConn’s 1996 NCAA tournament run because of an agent’s gifts to players.
No one ever said conquering big-time college basketball was pretty. And no one ever thought these guys were angels.
Two years ago, Calipari had to sit down with Kentucky president Lee Todd and convince Todd that he could run an ethical, positive program. When the UK job had opened in 2007, Todd wouldn’t even talk with Calipari.
“I had some concerns about some of the [Memphis] players that had gone to some of those high schools that weren’t the caliber of high schools I thought they should be,” Todd said of Calipari recruiting so-called “diploma mills.”
“Also, the smoke that surrounded Marcus Camby.”
In the end, a thorough vetting process got Calipari a three-hour meeting. He quickly won over Todd, as he generally is wont to do. Sunday, they all hugged and celebrated another Wildcats victory.
It’s the same power that Calhoun still casts over Connecticut, where he’s a larger-than-life figure and, at 68, is reveling in another run at a potential third national title.
For two decades, the coaches have been exchanging barbs and battling for recruits and speaking ill of each other, both publicly and privately. They’ve both refused to accept limitations for themselves or their teams. They’ve both found an extra measure of passion that comes from the heat of the battle.
Now they’ll meet with so much on the line – a potential national title hanging in the balance.
“You know the competitive juices will be flowing for both,” Marcum said.
Old rivals, new stakes, a final chapter.