One of the most intriguing story lines of this year’s Kentucky Wilcats vs. Louisville Cardinals Final Four match-up has nothing to do with the players on the court; this time, it’s the coaches on the sidelines, John Calipari and Rick Pitino, who bring the most drama to the in-state rivalry.
At one point in time, the two men were considered to be close friends. Having met more than thirty years ago at a basketball camp in which a 19 year-old Pitino was a counselor and 14 year-old Calipari was a camper, the two struck up a friendship. In fact, they were so close that Pitino was rumored to have been the person responsible for helping Calipari land his first head-coaching job at Pitino’s alma mater, the University of Massachusetts.
Since then, however, though no one knows exactly why, it appears that the friendship may have faded and that the two long-time friends are now merely “friendly acquaintances,” as Calipari himself stated when asked of their relationship.
Regardless of their friendship, or lack thereof, inarguably, they are clearly both considered to be among the top college coaches in the game today, and the two men have taken quite similar career paths to get to that point.
Calipari and Pitino are the only two college basketball coaches to ever take 3 different programs to the Final Four, though Calipari’s UMASS and Memphis appearances were later vacated to due sanctions from violations that occurred on his watch.
The two coaches are the highest paid coaches in all of college basketball, with Pitino slightly edging out his younger colleague.
At one time, both jumped to the NBA, and back down to the college ranks after less than stellar professional coaching careers.
And both have held the lofty position as the head-coach of the storied University of Kentucky Wildcats.
There are many Kentucky fans that still hold a grudge against their former head-coach for leaving them for the Boston Celtics–the bitterness only made worse when Pitino returned to the state to accept the head-coaching position for their in-state rival, the Louisville Cardinals. It seems that the only thing that most Wildcat fans would hate more than losing in the Final Four is losing it to Rick Pitino.
The two teams met up earlier this year in the regular season, with Kentucky defeating the Cardinals, but this time, the stakes are much, much higher.
This Final Four appearance marks the fifth time that Calipari and Pitino have met in the post-season, with the last being when Pitino’s Kentucky squad ousted Calipari’s UMASS team from the 1996 Final Four. In those games, Pitino is 4-0 over Calipari.
This time, however, it’s Calipari who is leading the Wildcats, and he seems to be the one who holds the cards; he is the one with more talent–he is the one with the better team. He is the one who is expected to win.
As many similarities that exists in their two careers, there is one big difference: Pitino has won a national title. Calipari has not. This year, however, could be his best chance. Yet in order to get there, he has to get past long-time friend-turned-nemesis, Rick Pitino.
Not an easy task.