Mark Story

Kentucky's big rivalry meets coaching's best rivalry

For John Calipari and Rick Pitino, there has always seemed a certain kismet linking their career paths.

Duke and North Carolina may form the country's signature college basketball rivalry. But no coaching matchup is going to sizzle like Pitino, the former Kentucky coach now at Louisville, and the new Kentucky head man, Calipari.

It almost seems the two were destined to end up working as archrivals in the same state.

As a youth, Pitino stamped himself as a future coaching star through his work as a counselor at the legendary Five Star Basketball Camp near Pittsburgh.

He was a 20-something Syracuse assistant when Howard Garfinkel, the guru of Five Star, introduced him to a teen camper being called "the next Pitino."

It was Calipari.

In 1987, Pitino exploded onto the American sports scene by leading Providence College to the Final Four, then taking the head coaching job with the New York Knicks.

It was natural that the coach's college alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, asked Pitino to help pick its next basketball coach.

Because of Pitino's recommendation, UMass hired a University of Pittsburgh assistant.

It was Calipari.

To sweeten the pot for the new UMass head man, legend says Pitino even kicked in some of his own money for a country club membership.

That "probably cost $2,000," Calipari jokes now. "He says it was $10,000; I think it was $2(,000)."

In Amherst, as Calipari launched one of the more improbable building jobs in college basketball history, people pinned a nickname on him.

"Little Ricky."

By 1991, the real Ricky P. had already bolted from the Knicks for a massive rebuilding job at probation-saddled Kentucky.

As a favor to his alma mater, Pitino scheduled the Minutemen in Rupp Arena.

Kentucky blasted UMass. But the night hooked Calipari.

"I could not believe the environment," Calipari says. "At that point, I said, 'I'd love to coach there someday.'"

Later in that '91-92 season, the two coaches met again. In the NCAA round of 16, Jamal Mashburn and Co. opened a huge lead on UMass.

The Minutemen rallied, cut it to two late, but saw their momentum stopped when Calipari got a controversial technical foul for (barely) stepping out of the coaching box.

UK survived to go on to meet Christian Laettner and destiny.

Four years later, Pitino had built Kentucky into a college basketball juggernaut. Amazingly, the main threat to UK's bid for a sixth national title was Massachusetts.

The 1995-96 Kentucky season began with talk of going undefeated. That ended in game two of the year when Marcus Camby and UMass upset the Cats 92-82.

Yet it was Ricky P. who laughed last.

In what everyone assumed was the de facto 1996 national title game, Kentucky beat Massachusetts 81-74 in a fiercely contested Final Four semifinal. Two nights later, the Cats beat Syracuse to win it all.

With national title in hand, all assumed Pitino would return to the NBA. When the New Jersey Nets offered him a $30 million contract, UK fans despaired.

Pitino turned the Nets down.

Instead, they wound up hiring another ambitious college coach.

It was Calipari.

A year later, Pitino followed along the NBA path, going to the Boston Celtics.

In the pay-for-play, something happened to Calipari and Pitino that neither had ever experienced.


Calipari went 72-112 and got fired 20 games into his third year in New Jersey. He did, at least, produce one playoff team.

In Boston, Pitino was 102-146, never sniffed the playoffs and got the axe midway through his fourth season.

Ultimately, both men returned to college basketball to relaunch their careers. They both did so at urban universities where tradition-rich programs had fallen on lean times.

At Memphis, it took Calipari six years to get his program past the first weekend of the NCAA tourney. In his eighth season, the Tigers went to the finals of the 2008 NCAA tourney. Memphis lost cruelly by missing late free throws and blowing a nine-point lead in the final minutes against Kansas.

During Pitino's fourth year (2005) at Louisville, he led the Cardinals to their first Final Four in 19 years.

For a time, Memphis and Louisville were rivals in Conference USA. The relationship between the former friends turned tense.

At Memphis, Calipari went 4-2 against Pitino in regular-season games. But Louisville won both meetings with Memphis in the conference tournament.

As a college coach, Calipari is 0-4 against Pitino in post-season tournament meetings.

After a 2003 game, Pitino publicly ridiculed Calipari for criticizing officials. When U of L left C-USA behind for the Big East in 2004, Calipari complained bitterly over Louisville's refusal to continue a home-and-home series with its longtime rival.

The tensions between the two apparently thawed a bit last year when the ubiquitous basketball power broker William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley set up a peace dinner between Calipari and Pitino.

"This thing about we hate each other, it's so crazy," Calipari said of Pitino. "I mean, we're competitive."

This spring, after Billy Gillispie was ousted and the UK search turned toward Calipari, Pitino was publicly polite.

"He's done a great job at UMass. He's done a great job at Memphis," Pitino said. "He'll do a great job at Kentucky if that's their choice."

Days later, the coach they used to call "Little Ricky" took the Kentucky job where the original had his greatest career success.

With both in the same state, you just know the UK-U of L rivalry is going to rock.

Whether this state is big enough for two big-ego, hyper-competitive coaches to exist without it descending into open personal warfare will be fascinating.

"You know what I said to him. 'We're not even in the same league anymore. Why bother with each other?'" Calipari said. "'We got to play a game, let's play it, get it done, but why bother with each other?'"

Those UK fans theorizing that Calipari's presence in Lexington will somehow demoralize Pitino are dreaming.

Pitino is a competition junkie. He is going to rise to the occasion of the challenge from the one guy in his profession with whom fate has long seemed intent on linking him.

This is going to be fun.