John Clay: No pressure, Cal, but now is the time to hurdle Pitino

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 27, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

John Calipari, you asked for it, you got it.

This is the job you wanted.

You said your goal was to be head coach of one of the traditional powers. You said you were disappointed in 2007 when Tubby Smith left Kentucky and your phone didn't ring. You said you celebrated your good fortune when two years later you were named head coach of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.

This is the Final Four you wanted.

You've been to three before, despite what the NCAA might say. But you have never been as the favorite. Not the overwhelming favorite. You came before with really good teams. But never with the best team. Until now.

This is the game you wanted.

You can claim that the supposed rift between yourself and Rick Pitino is overblown. We know better. In these situations, he's always been the top dog, the one coaching the better program with the better players. That's not the case come Saturday. Not on the sport's biggest stage.

As far as Kentucky fans are concerned, there's just one caveat.

You can't lose this game.

That may not be fair. It may not be right. At Kentucky, it is how it is.

That Rick Pitino quip from Phoenix? The one about Kentucky fans having "nervous breakdowns" and raising the "fences on bridges" at the thought of losing to Louisville?

As Tina Fey says, it's funny because it's true.

Calipari is 0-4 against Pitino in post-season tournaments, but Pitino always had the upper hand. Such has been their career arcs.

When Pitino was at Kentucky, Calipari was at UMass. When Pitino was coaching (though not successfully) the Celtics, Calipari was with the Nets. When Pitino and Louisville were moving up to the Big East, Calipari was at Memphis, still stuck in Conference USA.

Pitino is the New Yorker in his perfect Armani suits and Gucci shoes. Calipari is the Pittsburgher who wears the same color suit and tie, with the rumpled shirt.

Pitino is the guy in the clubhouse. Calipari is the guy fighting to get in the clubhouse.

The tables are now turned. Calipari's program has the advantage in tradition, fan base and, in this case, talent. To whom much is given, much is expected.

A younger Calipari might have psyched himself out this week. The thought of playing his program's in-state archrival, the thought of coaching against his "friendly acquaintance" for a spot in the championship game might have thrown him off his game.

Now, Calipari is 53. He's older and wiser. He's a better coach. Three years here, he's done an incredible job.

He's recruited fabulous players. He's captured SEC titles and is now in his second Final Four in as many years, his fourth as a head coach.

He's done everything the Big Blue Nation hoped he would do.

Except win the title.

If he doesn't win this year, it doesn't mean he's not a terrific coach. It doesn't mean he won't get another shot. It doesn't mean he won't win one or two or three championships down the road.

But this is the one shot for this fabulous team. These 12 players won't be together as a team again. Winning the championship, said freshman point guard Marquis Teague on Tuesday, has been what this team has thought about "since the first day."

For Kentucky fans, the thought of Louisville, and Rick Pitino, keeping the Cats from the title is too much to bear.

In the minds of the most passionate, and irrational, it would be enough to ruin what has been a tremendous season.

Calipari can say whatever he wants about that — "A win or a loss doesn't matter if the school is 12 miles from you or 1,000 miles from you," Cal said Tuesday — and much of what he says may actually be true.

But this too is true: John Calipari has worked all his life to be in the position he will be in this weekend.

Now all he has to do is win.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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