During a teleconference Wednesday, Texas Coach Rick Barnes recalled the beginnings of a longtime friendship with John Calipari. Summer, of maybe, 1980. Five-Star Camp in Pittsburgh. Barnes a few years out of college. Calipari newly returned home as a transfer to Clarion State.
A look ahead to Friday's high-wattage Kentucky-Texas game became a warm reminiscence with Barnes repeatedly tossing bouquets Calipari's way:
■ "Done an incredible job" getting Kentucky's star-studded roster of players to accept the team concept.
■ "I think he's always been underrated as a coach."
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■ "I respect John as much as anybody I've ever met in the coaching business."
■ "I know if I call John Calipari, he'd say, 'What do you need? Don't say another word. You just tell me what you need.'"
Amid the tribute, perhaps an unsentimental reason for the friendship emerged. As Barnes told it, neither he nor Calipari is going to let niceties get in the way.
Recalling the routes to the big time (George Mason-Providence-Clemson-Texas for Barnes, UMass-Memphis-Kentucky for Calipari), Barnes said, "Sometimes you're going to fight for everything you can. And John is a fighter. And he's going to do the job that's in front of him."
Then-Temple coach John Chaney famously barged into a Calipari post-game news conference to say he was going to "kill" the UMass coach. Talk of a shameless zeal in recruiting followed Calipari as a man on the make.
About the same time, Barnes famously ruffled college basketball feathers.
"It happened with me at Clemson with the altercation with Dean Smith, which I wished never would have happened," Barnes said.
Barnes confronted Smith, the iconic North Carolina coach, in the 1995 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Smith pointed a finger and yelled at a Clemson player who fouled a Tar Heel. Barnes did not appreciate the other coach, even the esteemed Smith, challenging one of his players.
"I knew how Clemson was looked upon," Barnes said. "They weren't even considered someone in the fight. I knew we had to try to change that persona. I knew if that meant taking on City Hall, you have to take on City Hall.
"John Calipari, throughout his career, has been willing to take on City Hall."
Such zeal leads inevitably to criticism, Barnes said.
"You're going to get judged real quickly," he said. "People who know you, they're going to love you and respect you for it. And the people who don't understand it, they're not going to like you."
Barnes suggested he and Calipari don't take such criticism seriously. "Because it's all so fleeting," he said. Never mind that Calipari regularly refers to his critics and laments why he and/or Kentucky is not universally admired.
Earlier this season, Calipari lauded Providence Coach Ed Cooley for becoming a success despite the lack of a big name or can't-miss job along the way. "I don't need to see white-shoe guys," he said, apparently meaning coaches born with a silver whistle in their mouths.
By that standard, Barnes is not a white-shoe guy as evidenced by a college career playing for Lenoir-Rhyne.
"I'm sure I was a better player than him," Barnes said in teasing Calipari's nondescript days as a player. "I don't think he could ever guard me. And I know I could guard him."
Barnes worked as an assistant at Davidson, George Mason, Alabama and Ohio State for 10 years before becoming a college head coach.
Fast forward to Friday's game. Barnes acknowledged that the injury to point guard Isaiah Taylor hurts Texas.
"It is huge," he said. "... The guys have a lot of belief in his leadership and his confidence and his swagger. There's no question of that."
More than once, Barnes reminded reporters that it's a December game, and an early December game at that. He noted that one of his Clemson teams beat Kentucky 79-71 in overtime in Indianapolis to begin the 1996-97 season. "I don't think that defined the program," he said.
Yet, that competitiveness that Barnes and Calipari seem to share surfaced. One too many questions about Kentucky's many big men led Barnes to observe:
"We've got good players, too, now. Don't think we don't. ... We're going to come play. We're not going to just come up. I think right now we don't have anything scheduled to visit any horse farms. We're coming to play and I think John knows we're coming to play."
Football or basketball
Barnes noted that the game was originally scheduled for Saturday. TV moved it to Friday so as not to conflict with college football.
"I wish they left it on Saturday," he said, "and see how many people rather watch basketball or football."