UK Men's Basketball

Auburn's coach considers Calipari friend and mentor

Auburn Coach Tony Barbee first met friend and mentor John Calipari at the 5-Star basketball camp at Indianapolis.  Barbee wanted to play college ball for Calipari so badly that he  committed to Massachusetts without having seen the campus.
Auburn Coach Tony Barbee first met friend and mentor John Calipari at the 5-Star basketball camp at Indianapolis. Barbee wanted to play college ball for Calipari so badly that he committed to Massachusetts without having seen the campus. ASSOCIATED PRESS

As John Calipari prepared to speak to reporters in the Craft Center on Monday, Auburn Coach Tony Barbee walked by on his way to Kentucky's practice.


Isn't Kentucky playing Auburn on Tuesday night?

"I told him he's welcome to stay," Calipari said. "It seems like we're running about the same thing. It's not like we're going to confuse him."

Barbee stayed for less than an hour. Then he had to leave to get to Auburn's practice later in the afternoon.

"I don't think it'd make a difference whether I was at (Kentucky's) practice or not," Barbee said.

He noted that when he and Calipari were coaching colleagues in Conference USA (Barbee at UTEP, Calipari at Memphis), he'd regularly watch Memphis practice the day before games.

"We're about helping each other," Barbee said. "I'm running what he's running. He's running what I'm running. Tomorrow when his team calls a play, our team will know what it is because we run the same thing."

Not that Kentucky and Auburn will sit around the center circle Tuesday night and sing Kumbaya.

"One thing I know about him and one thing he knows about me," Barbee said. "There is a nasty, mean competitive streak in both of us. For two hours tomorrow, I'm going to try to kick his butt and he's going to try to kick mine."

Then the game will be over and the mentor-pupil relationship resumes.

At the Southeastern Conference Media Day in October, Barbee noted how he talks to Calipari at least three times a week.

"There hasn't been a male figure in my life — outside of my dad — who's had the kind of impact he's had personally and professionally," Barbee said. "He'll always be my friend. He's also a mentor. ... We'll compete in this league, but it's not going to change our relationship."

Calipari and Barbee go back to when the Auburn coach was a 15-year-old player having just completed his freshman year of high school in Indianapolis. He was an eager camper at the famed 5-Star camp and Calipari was a counselor/coach.

Summer after summer, Barbee returned to the 5-Star camp. Each time, Calipari was his coach.

"You're a young kid, you're very impressionable," Barbee said. "I was just sold on his authenticity. Everything about him was real. It didn't seem like an act, so to speak.

"He didn't tell you want you wanted to hear. He told you always the truth and what you needed to hear."

Barbee wanted to play for Calipari so much he committed to Massachusetts in 1988 without seeing the campus. To make the leap of faith more notable, Calipari would be a first-time college head coach.

" 'I want to play for you,' " Calipari said of Barbee's commitment. "There's been a bunch of those, now. But he was first."

Both flourished. Barbee scored 1,643 points, which is now sixth on the school's career list. Calipari guided UMass from obscurity to national prominence.

Barbee learned a way to play that he hopes Auburn will share with Kentucky.

"I know one thing about his teams: They're going to come out and rip your heart out," Barbee said. "As I try to build my program at Auburn, that's the type of mentality I'm trying to establish. Whether you win or lose, for 40 minutes you're just going on the attack. If you happen to lose, it's because you ran out of clock. It's not because you stopped fighting."

Although Auburn scored only six points — yes, six points — in the first half against LSU on Saturday, Barbee's team may have displayed that spirit better than Calipari's last weekend.

Barbee made light of the six-point half in which Auburn made only one of its final 23 shots and came within a point of a record low (California scored five points against Notre Dame in the first half earlier this season). "We set basketball back about 50 years," he said. "We don't shoot well. We don't have anyone to post. We don't have anyone to make an individual play."

What else is there? "That's a tough combination," said Barbee, who counted 18 missed layups in the half.

Yet, Auburn battled. "We were only down 26 because of defense," he said of Auburn's 32-6 halftime deficit. "Or it would have been 46."

Auburn kept battling and got in position to make it a two-possession game with three minutes left before losing 62-55.

"We're going to scratch," Barbee said. "We're going to claw. We're going to fight and, if we lose, it's because we ran out of time."

With a Ratings Percentage Index of 324, which puts Auburn on pace for the worst RPI ever by a team from a BCS conference, the Tigers may not see the effort translate into a lot of victories in Barbee's first year of a major rebuilding project.

Although much more talented, Kentucky annoyed Calipari by not battling to the finish of a 77-70 loss at Georgia. On an SEC teleconference Monday, Calipari lamented that some players might be "content" with individual accomplishments and not "committed" to team achievement.

Calipari talked about possible lineup changes, calling more timeouts to make sure plays are run properly and more coaching of his freshman-oriented team.

"If I had more guys, these same guys wouldn't be getting so many minutes," Calipari said. "I tried to let them know that."

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