John Clay

Calipari vs. Pitino: Clash of coaches won’t last forever

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, left, and Kentucky Coach John Calipari, before their teams played in Lexington on Dec. 28, 2013.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, left, and Kentucky Coach John Calipari, before their teams played in Lexington on Dec. 28, 2013. Lexington Herald-Leader

Right smack in the middle of the frantic holiday season, the thought hits with the same cold chill reserved for when you realize you have left someone deserving off your Christmas shopping list.

Could this really be the last time we see John Calipari and Rick Pitino coaching against each other in a Kentucky-Louisville basketball game?

Say it isn’t so. Say that when Calipari’s Cats and Pitino’s Cardinals take the Rupp Arena floor at noon Saturday for the annual supertanker showdown, it won’t be the last time we’ll see the two controversial, passionate, mercurial, brilliant and now Hall of Fame coaches matching wits in the sport this state cares so much about.

It’s that dark cloud hanging over the Louisville program that makes us even consider the awful possibility. Since the fall publication of Katina Powell’s tell-all book, Breaking Cardinal Rules, in which the self-described madam alleges that former U of L staffer Andre McGee paid for so-called “entertainment” parties attended by basketball players in a university dorm, the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation has invaded the Louisville airspace.

Pitino has denied knowledge of any such misbehavior. Athletic director Tom Jurich has backed Pitino. U of L president James Ramsey has backed Jurich. The proper wagons have been circled as the scandal has reached the dark-side-of-the-moon stage, in which no one says much of anything until something happens. With the NCAA involved, who knows when that will be?

That hasn’t stopped some national and local pundits from calling for Pitino’s job, however. They ask: How could the control-freak coach not have known? They argue: If he didn’t know, he should have known. Who’s in charge here? The buck — more like the megabuck — stops at the top.

The guess here is Pitino won’t be required to fall on his sword. It seems more likely he’ll receive the same sort of multi-game suspension recently handed to other coaching icons Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Larry Brown at SMU.

Kentucky fans are no doubt reveling in this, another Pitino predicament. Their feelings for their former coach turned ice-cold when he started running with the devil up the road. Even in this holiday season, they see no reason for sympathy toward Ricky P.

And, as we know, Calipari and Pitino don’t exchange Christmas cards. They make nice in public, but their real feelings for each other are well documented. They are too competitive, too success-driven, too much alike to stay friends. One day, noted sports psychologists will win awards for academic dissertations dissecting their relationship.

But the truth is we need them both and they need each other. Calipari pushes Pitino the way Pitino pushes Calipari, whether they want to admit it or not. In his secret heart, Calipari wants to prove he is the better coach by outdoing what Pitino did at Kentucky. In his secret heart, Pitino doesn’t want Calipari to get the better of the career arc. Each wants to outdo the other in pursuit of personal glory. It’s what makes the world go around.

It’s also part of what makes the current state of this rivalry so much fun. Forget your fan-base allegiances. There are reasons both men are now in the Naismith Hall of Fame. There is not a better coach in America at preparation and player development than Rick Pitino. There is not a better coach in America at recruiting and getting individual superstars to play as a team than John Calipari.

Saturday will mark the ninth time in seven years that we’ve been lucky enough to see the two on the same floor at the same time, scheming, plotting, urging, screaming; in other words coaching with everything they’ve got in hopes of beating the other.

It’s a master class in what coaching modern day college basketball is really all about. It would be a shame if this were the last one.