John Clay: Coaching rivals Calipari, Crean remain close off the court

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 22, 2012 

ATLANTA — Indiana would lose. John Calipari would call. The Hoosiers would drop another one. Calipari would call. Indiana would play someone close, but lose. And Calipari would call.

"It wasn't just, 'Hey, hang in there.' Anybody can tell you that," said Tom Crean. "It was tangible things: Have you thought about this? Are you looking at that? Things that made you think."

When Crean was winning just 28 games in his first three seasons of serious struggle in Bloomington, No. 1 on the list of the IU basketball coach support system was his family.

No. 2 was Calipari.

"It's been him more than really anybody else outside of my family in this business," said Crean on Thursday. "And I will always appreciate that."

So never mind that the two fiery competitors will face off Friday night here in an NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal at the Georgia Dome.

Never mind that Indiana cost Kentucky a perfect regular season or that UK is a nine-point favorite to skip past the Hoosiers and make it to the Elite Eight.

The two have been, are now, and will probably always be close friends.

"I don't," said Calipari this week, "like coaching against friends."

So what activated this accord?

Big East Magazine.

The periodical devoted to Big East basketball published a feature on Calipari, then a Paul Evans assistant at Pittsburgh. A young Crean absorbed the article and memorized the message. To make it as a head coach, argued Calipari, you have to be known for something. Cal wanted to be known for recruiting.

"That really stuck home with me," Crean said. "And as I continued to watch him and get to know him a little bit, I kept looking at a guy that is a great coach."

Early part of last decade, their paths crossed as competitors in Conference USA. Crean was head coach at Marquette. Calipari was head coach at Memphis. But instead of fracturing, their relationship grew.

"We played them one night on a Friday night," Crean remembered. "I believe it was his first year. We won the game, and I remember talking how really good a coach I think he was and the things that we learned from him.

"And he thanked me later for giving him credit, he says, because he's not used to that in his career with other people that he's faced. That always stuck with me, too."

Calipari has gladly returned the favor. Whenever Crean was ever criticized at Marquette, or later at Indiana, Calipari was quick to come to his young friend's defense.

"Tommy worked at Pitt (as an assistant to Ralph Willard in 1994-95) and obviously I grew up in Pittsburgh and was an assistant there," Calipari said Thursday. "When he went there, that's when I really got to know him and when I truly started to spend some time on the phone with him. And out recruiting, we'd get together."

Surprise, they'd talk hoops.

"He's a Basketball Benny," Calipari said. "He's into basketball. He's not into a whole lot of other stuff. He just loves it. He's into kids. And I've always had great respect for him because of that."

"If I didn't know John, I'd give him a ton of credit for what kind of coach he is, but I do know John," Crean said. "I learned a lot from him."

Not that Calipari takes any credit for IU's resurgence, mind you. That's all Crean, classic Crean, the same determined, hyperactive leader who in 2003, along with a fellow named Dwyane Wade, guided Marquette to its first Final Four — beating UK in the Mideast Regional finals along the way — since 1977.

"You have to have a will that's stronger than everybody around you, and he does, to get Indiana back to where now you're looking up at a top-five program that kids from across the country would watch them play and say, 'I'd like to play for them,'" Calipari said. "To do that in the time frame is amazing."

Thursday, someone suggested to Crean that for one friend to experience exaltation Friday, the other must experience despair.

"I think, when it's competitive like this, you just understand that it's part of it," Crean said. "I think, if you've got a couple of people like that in your life, then you're fortunate to have them. I would say that he is.

"But it's not going to change anything tomorrow night at 9:50, I promise you that. He's going to try to get an edge, I'm going to try and get it back. That's just the way it is."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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