John Clay: Venerability eases contempt

Once-bitter foes have grown to admire, if not like, each other

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 2, 2011 

HOUSTON — At the Final Four Salute on Thursday night, Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun repeated how he was the grandfather among the quartet of coaches, how Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens were his "brilliant young sons" and John Calipari was his "problem child."

"It's like My Three Sons," said the 68-year-old coach, referencing the 1960s TV comedy, "and I'm Fred MacMurray."

"I told him I know Fred MacMurray," said the problem child on Friday, "and Jim, you're no Fred MacMurray."

Ah, love is in the air here in Houston.

OK, so it's not love — "We're not friends," said Calhoun — but there has been a certain hype factor to this supposed feud between the two coaches who will meet Saturday night in the national semifinals.

The feud was so back then. This is now. The two might not be BFFs, but there seems to be at least a burgeoning respect being fostered between Connecticut's Calhoun and Kentucky's Calipari. Not affection. Oh, no. But there is respect.

"Jim is a Hall of Famer," said Calipari.

"John was an aggressive personality," Calhoun said, "who has developed into a great coach."

Back in the 1990s, they were too much alike and too close together to ever get along. Calhoun was the tough, abrasive coach trying to build a program at Connecticut.

Calipari was the tough, loquacious coach trying to build a program at UMass.

"The Northeast is so tight you're right on top of each other," said Calipari on Friday, "and it's a competitive environment."

Calhoun said Calipari tried to pass himself off as a Northeasterner. But he said Calipari couldn't even recognize real clam chowder. "I took umbrage to that," said the UConn coach. "But I take umbrage to a lot of things."

They played twice back then. Calhoun won both games. When Calipari landed in Memphis after being fired by the New Jersey Nets, they met once. Calipari won that one. They met last season at Madison Square Garden in the SEC/Big East Challenge. Kentucky came out on top. They met this year in the Maui finals. Connecticut rolled.

"I grabbed Jim after the game and told him he outcoached me," Calipari said. "He made me look bad."

Truth be told, both have made a lot of coaches look bad this season.

Calhoun's team, as he pointed out Friday, was not even picked in the pre-season top 68 by Sports Illustrated, yet is in the Final Four. Calipari's team lost five first-round draft picks from last year, plus failed to get Enes Kanter eligible, yet is in the Final Four.

Connecticut started strong, suffered a late-season slump, then rallied to win five games in five days at the Big East Tournament, plus four more in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky dropped six close conference road games, then ripened at exactly the right time, beating top seed Ohio State and second seed North Carolina to win the East Region.

"He's developed into, in my opinion, a terrific coach," Calhoun said Friday. "I watched the way he coaches. His kids play hard, play great defense, and play together. He's been getting, as you well know, tremendous, big-name players. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and no disdain for him as a person."

"I think he's a battler, and I think he holds the bar high and doesn't accept anything except their best," said Calipari earlier in the week. "He gets them to a point where they look at it and say, 'Hey, we can do this.'"

Why Friday, Fred MacMurray, er, Calhoun even called Calipari "brilliant."

Maybe time heals old wounds. Maybe they are both so happy to be here they'll even say nice things about each other. Maybe, come Saturday night, the niceties will be put aside.

"If I was playing John, I'd post him up," Calhoun said. "But it's not about the coaches."

Sounds like something Fred MacMurray would say.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on twitter at @johnclayiv.

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