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College Basketball - Pitino, Calipari Meet Again

By Doug Graham
Monday, February 3rd, 2003
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They were once the poster boys for the word "slick."

John Calipari built a UMass program out of scraps, while Rick Pitino took a once-great college basketball institution burdened with NCAA sanctions and returned them to glory.

Then, they gave the NBA a try.

Pitino was supposed to restore glory to the Boston Celtics in much of the same way that he restored the Kentucky program. He famously exited after a press conference that keyed on telling fans that the legends of Boston lore wouldn't be returning to the parquet floor.

Calipari went to the Swamp of the Meadowlands, where no one but Julius Erving could find success. Calipari sought to bring his "Refuse to Lose" attitude of the Minutemen to the NBA.

Is it even worth it to go until detail about how the two fared in their new gigs? Those are roads that Calipari and Pitino don't even want to head down.

Currently, John Calipari is in his third season coaching the Memphis Tigers and Pitino is in his second, back in Kentucky, only coaching the Louisville Cardinals.

Calipari's first major move as a head coach was to bring in Camden, New Jersey native DeJuan Wagner for his second season coaching Memphis. The Tigers were now back in the national spotlight with the nation's top recruit. Calipari wouldn't get the Tigers back to March Madness, but did take them to the NIT Tournament.

Unfortunately for Calipari, Wagner high-tailed it to the NBA after his first season. Who can blame him? I hear life as a Cleveland Cavalier is amazing.

Despite losing Wagner, Calipari came into the 2002-2003 basketball season with expectations of taking Memphis to the Big Dance, somewhere Memphis hasn't been since 1996. After getting off to a solid start, the Tigers have stumbled a bit upon entering conference play. There has been bickering in Memphis and slowly people are beginning to ask whether Calipari still has what it takes to steer a college program.

At Louisville, Rick Pitino couldn't be happier with what has happened. The Cardinals are a Top-10 program, and Pitino already won the big one when they defeated Kentucky earlier in the season.

It might be blasphemy to see Pitino walking the sidelines as Louisville's head coach, given the rivalry between the two schools that was already in place. In reality, though, it was the perfect fit. Pitino would return to Kentucky, the state where his basketball legacy was made. Louisville is a mid-level program in an up-and-coming conference and it fit Pitino perfectly, especially after the Boston debacle. Pitino needed to go to a program where the only direction was up -- yes, it was an image thing, but to succeed anywhere, you need to have that image.

Imagine if Pitino had chosen to coach at a traditional national power and failed to produce tournament winners in his early seasons as coach. It wouldn't be a comfortable situation by any means. At Louisville, Pitino can relax, knowing that his job isn't in jeopardy any time soon.

Granted, the last thing Pitino is going to do when he takes hold of a program is relax, but the comfort level of the program suited what he needed after Boston.

Memphis is seemingly the perfect situation for John Calipari, but that might not be the case. Memphis fans are restless, they want that return to the tournament. After Calipari's slips in the early conference play, talk began already that Calipari wasn't the man for the Memphis job. Talk was that Calipari couldn't bring the "Refuse to Lose" attitude of the UMass Minuteman to the Memphis Tigers.

In part, they are right. Calipari built the Massachusetts team off of a premise that they weren't given any hope at success. They were insignificant to the college basketball landscape. Success would have to be their own making, no one would hand them anything.

The players Calipari brought in the Massachusetts ate up everything Calipari fed them. They succeeded because night in and night out, their work ethic was at a higher level then their opponent. The teams that Calipari fielded weren't laden with NBA-potential, he recruited players that he knew would work hard, that he knew would play as a team. When Calipari was at Massachusetts, he was the example of what a coach was supposed to be.

Granted, he whined a little too much, which led to Calipari's short-lived but oft-remembered feud with Temple basketball coach John Chaney.

Calipari recruited better then anyone had done before at Massachusetts and he coached. Calipari may have fallen off in that last category because of his time in the NBA, which has possibly left him a bit jaded as to what the coaching landscape entails.

Now both coaches are leading a conference, bringing instant recognition to a conference that plays a high quality of basketball. Competitive and entertaining, that's Conference USA. Growing is another word to describe the conference, Pitino and Calipari should help a great deal in the growth of the conference.

They were college basketball's glamour boys, each time they meet now in C-USA play, flashes of what used to be, and what might once again appear come forth.

The biggest matchup between John Calipari and Rick Pitino came in 1996. It was the Final Four and a culmination of what Calipari had done with the Massachusetts program since taking over in 1988.

Before the meeting, Pitino heaped praise upon Calipari, even saying that he wished for a different opponent, because then he'd "have a chance to win the national championship."

Pitino was wrong that season, because he did go on to win the national championship, defeating Calipari. But Pitino's praise for Calipari and what he had done was understandable.

Pitino was a UMASS graduate in 1972. In the spring of 1988, Pitino was still coaching for the New York Knicks. While he was coaching, Pitino was contacted by his alma mater to help find a coaching for a Massachusetts program that had endured 10 consecutive losing seasons. Finding a coach for a team in that dire state was not a simple task, but Pitino quickly found the man that he would not only recommend, but push for.

Pitino saw in Calipari's potential and pushed for him because he knew that Calipari would make an excellent head coach somewhere. It was somewhat risky, staking your reputation as an alumnus on the line for a 29-year-old with no head coaching experience.

But it worked. After a losing season in his first campaign, John Calipari found postseason play for the Minutemen. Two seasons of NIT play and it was on to the Big Dance, five seasons, five Atlantic-10 championships.

Massachusetts was no longer the doormat of the Conference. With the success, came a new basketball arena and national recognition. Calipari would lose that 1996 Final Four game to Pitino, but would then accept a job with the New Jersey Nets as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach. He lasted only three seasons with the Nets in an up-and-down tenure. Losing 56 games in his first season, but coming back strong in his second season with 43 victories and New Jersey's first appearance in the NBA playoffs in five seasons.

However, high expectations turned into three wins in the first 20 games of the 1998-1999 season.

Calipari was done as a head coach. Back in the collegiate level, Calipari has a strong future ahead of him. He is building the Memphis program up slowly, both Calipari and Pitino reached the NIT Tournament in the first seasons with their programs, Calipari winning it last season.

Maybe they underachieved last season with DeJuan Wagner, but after losing their top talent of a year ago, Calipari has a team ready to make that first appearance in the tournament since 1996. The games before the showdown with Pitino will be important for the success of Memphis this season.

On February 19th, Pitino and Calipari will meet again.

It's just a basketball game, but it's also more. They were two coaches who once dictated the future of college basketball. They'll attempt to do so again.

To say the least, the sidelines will be entertaining. They always are with this pair.

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