UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Calipari or Pitino: Which coach’s UK tenure was best?

UK team and head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats with the trophy after defeating Kansas in the championship game of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament Monday, April 2, 2012, in New Orleans.
UK team and head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats with the trophy after defeating Kansas in the championship game of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament Monday, April 2, 2012, in New Orleans.

When Louisville visits Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Saturday, it will mark the ninth time that Rick Pitino and John Calipari have matched wits as the coaching antagonists in our state’s signature basketball rivalry.

As UK head man, Cal is 7-1 against Ricky P. He has used that run to turn what had been an 8-5 Pitino advantage in their college coaching rivalry into a 12-9 Calipari edge.

Yet the long-time coaching foes are competing, in a sense, in another way, too.

Before Calipari came to Kentucky, Pitino’s eight-year tenure as UK head man (1989-97) was rightfully regarded as the modern golden age of Wildcats basketball.

However, 11 games into his seventh year as Kentucky coach, Calipari has put together a stretch that rivals the epic era Pitino produced in Lexington. Let’s compare and contrast their UK tenures.

NCAA Tournament success

In 1989, Pitino inherited a Kentucky program on NCAA probation that had only eight scholarship players. UK was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament his first two seasons (1989-90 and 1990-91).

Yet in his six tournament-eligible seasons, Pitino produced five Elite Eight teams, three Final Four squads and the 1996 NCAA champion. His overall NCAA tourney record at UK was 22-5.

Pitino’s one NCAA flame-out came in 1994, when his Cats lost to Marquette in the round of 32.

In 2009, Calipari inherited a Kentucky program mired in relative mediocrity, having suffered double-digit losses four seasons in a row.

Fueled by an immediate injection of NBA-level talent, Calipari’s first six seasons at Kentucky produced five Elite Eight teams, four Final Four squads and the 2012 NCAA champion. His overall NCAA tourney record at UK is 22-4.

Calipari’s one flameout came in 2013, when his Cats missed the NCAAs entirely — and lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

Advantage: Calipari (the extra Final Four cancels out the NIT embarrassment).

SEC championships

Pitino won two SEC regular-season crowns (1995 and ’96). His second Kentucky team (1991) had the best record in the league (14-4) but was ineligible for the championship due to the Eddie Sutton-era probation.

During the six seasons under Pitino that Kentucky was eligible for the SEC Tournament, it won it five times.

In Calipari’s six years, Kentucky has won three SEC regular-season titles and three SEC Tournament crowns.

Advantage: Pitino.

Rivalry games

Against Kentucky’s six biggest rivals of the 1990s — Louisville, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, Tennessee and Arkansas — Pitino went a combined 31-16. He dominated U of L (6-2) but was 0-4 versus North Carolina (0-3) and Duke (0-1).

Against UK’s six biggest rivals of the 21st century (same teams but substitute Florida for Arkansas), Calipari is a combined 35-12. He has dominated Louisville, has the upper hand on North Carolina (4-2) and is even (1-1) against Duke .

Advantage: Calipari.

Beating good teams

As Kentucky coach, Pitino went 49-27 (64.5 percent) against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Take out the two probation years (4-8), he was 45-19 (70.3).

Counting this season’s win over then-No. 5 Duke, Calipari is 42-14 against ranked foes (75 percent).

Advantage: Calipari.

First-round draft picks

A robust nine players whom Pitino recruited to Kentucky went on to be NBA first-round draft picks (that does not include Rodrick Rhodes, who was drafted after he had transferred to Southern California).

Yet that number is dwarfed by the 16 players Calipari has signed at Kentucky who became first-round selections (that does not include Enes Kanter, who never played at UK, or Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton, who signed with UK before Calipari was hired).

Advantage: Calipari.

Use of home-grown players

The harsh NCAA probation that laid UK basketball low meant that Pitino, in his early years in Lexington, had to rely on All-State-caliber players — Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey — rather than Kentucky’s normal complement of McDonald’s All-Americans.

That partly explains why, of Pitino’s six UK NCAA tourney teams, there was a native Kentuckian among the top five scorers on five of them.

In the Calipari era, only one Kentuckian, former Mason County star Darius Miller, has ever ranked among the top five scorers on a UK squad.

Advantage: Pitino.

Achilles’ heel

In the Pitino days, overtime was heartbreak time for UK. Under Ricky P., Kentucky lost an Elite Eight game (1992), a Final Four contest (1993) and a national chamnpionship game (1997) in OT. Overall, Kentucky went 1-7 in overtime contests under Pitino.

Calipari has been fine (8-3) in OT. The knock on Cal is that he has taken clearly the most talented team into the NCAA Tournament three times (2010, ’12 and ’15) as Kentucky coach but has one NCAA title to show for it.

Advantage: None.

So which coach has given Kentucky fans the better ride? The categories give the edge to Calipari, but ultimately I’d say it depends on what you value.

If you like the flash of a steady procession of future NBA stars passing through Rupp Arena year after year, the current time is as good for you as Kentucky basketball will ever likely be.

Conversely, if you relished that brief time after the probation when Kentucky was an underdog and Pitino drove those early UK teams to heights of over-achievement, those days are apt never to be topped.

Either way, you don’t have to apologize.


No. 16 Louisville at No. 12 Kentucky

When: Noon


Radio: WLAP-AM 1300, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Louisville 11-1, Kentucky 9-2

Series: Kentucky leads 33-15

Last meeting: Kentucky won 58-50 on Dec. 27, 2014, in Louisville.