Men's Basketball

John Clay: Pitino and Calipari both elevated Kentucky basketball

Kentucky Coach John Calipari, left, and Louisville Coach Rick Pitino shook hands before Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31, 2011, in Rupp Arena. Calipari led Kentucky to the national title that season. Pitino would take his team to the title the next year.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari, left, and Louisville Coach Rick Pitino shook hands before Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-62 on Dec. 31, 2011, in Rupp Arena. Calipari led Kentucky to the national title that season. Pitino would take his team to the title the next year. Herald-Leader

A few years back, a friend with close ties to Kentucky basketball pointed something out as a point of pride.

"You know," he said. "Going back to Adolph Rupp, with the exception of Eddie Sutton, every coach at Kentucky has won a national championship."

Billy Gillispie became the second, but you get the idea. Rupp won four titles. Joe B. Hall won a title. Rick Pitino won a title. Tubby Smith won a title. John Calipari has won a title.

We bring this up as we count down to Saturday's showdown between unbeaten and top-ranked Kentucky and unbeaten and fourth-ranked Louisville, to examine the age-old chicken-or-the-egg question.

Is it the singer or the song?

Is it the program or the coach?

For two guys who aren't particularly fond of each other, John Calipari and Rick Pitino have a lot in common, not the least of which is that they both have been the head coach at Kentucky. Both arrived during down periods and re-built the program. Both reached Final Fours and won national titles here.

Previous Kentucky coaches did that, as well, so what makes them stand out?

"The program is always going to have an impact on the coach, but I think what they both did was elevate the programs to a higher level than it was when they got there," said Darrin Horn, the Kentucky native and former Western Kentucky and South Carolina head coach, now working as an analyst for ESPN. "I think they performed in a manner that made it impossible to ignore that it was them and their influence."

In other words, yeah, the song was great, but the singer made it even better.

"I think you're talking about two of the most brilliant coaches in the game, both those guys," said Jay Williams, the former Duke guard and current ESPN analyst. "They are in the upper echelon of the greatest coaches, right now."

Take Pitino, a young star on the rise thanks to his Final Four at Providence and his NBA gig as a head coach with the New York Knicks. His migration to Kentucky in 1989 had much to do with an escape from New York and then Knicks' general manager Al Bianchi, but by the time Pitino left UK after the 1997 season, he was considered one of the two or three best coaches in the sport.

After failing with the Celtics, he returned to Kentucky, only this time at Louisville, and he proved he could do it all over again.

"The thing that always impressed me about Rick, he always seems to have a knack or an ability or skill that wherever he is, he figures out how to be successful," Horn said. "How he's playing now is different X and O wise than how he played at Kentucky. Yeah, they're still pressing and all that, but he's playing zone and, conceptually, it's totally different, and he's still successful."

"Rick gets these kids to play hard each and every night," said Williams, echoing a point that Horn made as well. "Granted, you're going to have letdowns. But he brings this New York City, in-your-face, tough, gritty style of basketball to Louisville every time they play. As a guy who played at Duke, I would have loved to play for Rick Pitino, because I'm that kind of guy who wants to get in your face for 94 feet."

Now take Calipari, whose coaching job at UMass in the 1990s is among the best in the history of the sport. He revived Memphis the way Pitino revived Louisville. Six years into Calipari's UK tenure, you can make the argument he is the most dominant force in college basketball.

"I think what he is doing is really hard to do," Horn said. "Anybody who says, 'Yeah, I could win with those guys,' well, it's not that easy to coach the way he's coaching. He never gets to build anything. He's got new guys every year. He's got a bunch of guys who have not gone through the maturation process of what it takes to be part of a team and what it takes to win and the sacrifice that it takes. In some ways, that's harder to do."

"I think Calipari is a marketing genius," Williams said. "I say that because, at the beginning of the year, you didn't hear experts talk about the individual guys who played for Kentucky. We were more enamored with the platoon system. He got us talking about the team rather than their individuals."

And yet, after all that, it's different at Kentucky. If you think it's all about basketball at Kentucky, you may be right, but there's also more to it than basketball. Sometimes, that's the toughest part.

"Maybe the most impressive thing is that there's a big part of having the job at Kentucky that doesn't have anything to do with coaching," Horn said. "And both those guys did it relative to their time and situations as well as it can be done.

"What Cal is doing now is different than what Pitino had to do as far as expectations and social media and all that kind of stuff. He's handled it great, and Pitino did, relative to his time, as well. A lot of guys can coach, but that deal is a whole different animal, and they've done it about as well as it can be done."

"They're just two special coaches," said Williams. "It's going to be a pleasure to watch those two teams play on Saturday."

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