Thursday, March 29, 2012

Calipari vs. Pitino Defines Intense, Bloody Bluegrass Showdown

They are not best friends, but enemies in one of the best rivalries in all of sports. They’re not at each other’s throats in the 2012 Final Four that features a war between in-state rivals. As often is seen, the Kentucky and Louisville engagement is so intense, it becomes a lust for spectators to witness such an exaggerated, compelling rivalry with two clashing schools battling in the Bluegrass showdown, while much animosity is between Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

It’s felt tremendously, a mutual sense of bitterness and jealousy among two elite coaches, and apparently Pitino and Calipari loathes one another. The rest of the basketball world might recall the moment when Calipari alluded to Kentucky being the only major college basketball program in the state — speaking ill of Louisville as if the university and its exquisite basketball program never existed. The folks might even recall the moment, which happened just recently, when Pitino responded by speaking in defense of the Cardinals and admittedly suggested that Calipari was jealous, resentful and ignorant.

In a state predominately known for its college hoops, annual horse racing, fried chicken and distilleries, as crazy as it sounds, Pitino and Calipari are known for trading punches, verbal jabs as to which team is more fitting to withstand a cold war. It’s impossible to specify when the Calipari-Pitino relationship turned bitter. Whatever it is, somebody pissed off somebody, and now the rivalry is a watchful display Saturday evening. For decades now, Pitino has said he opened the door for Calipari’s career, recommending his nemesis for the coaching job at UMass and wrote a check for $5,000 to cover expenses when Calipari was hired in 1988.

Things happen, and for the worse, they have a broken relationship after a growing feud has recurred for much of this week, now that Louisville and UK will meet in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in New Orleans. So here’s what we know in all of this – Calipari comments ensued greatly that inflamed bad blood last fall.

“There’s no other state, none, that’s as connected to their basketball program as this one because those other states have other programs,” Calipari told KSTV. “Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It’s Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that’s what makes us unique.”

Those remarks didn’t go over well with Pitino. The real petulance for Pitino, it seemed, was from Calipari’s theory of the non-existence for one of the best college basketball programs on the face of this earth. In days following, he responded.

“Four things I’ve learned in my 59 years about people,” Pitino told CBSSports.com. “I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone, wear it.”

It’s hard to believe anything from Pitino and Calipari, whether they are trying to avoid distractions or repair a rocky relationship by discussing their differences. Right now, as much has been made about an overblown story that has generated puffery all week, who knows if Calipari and Pitino are friends? It’s a strange state of affairs when Pitino said, “there’s no animosity” between he and Calipari. And as this week has shown, in the history of a longstanding coaches’ feud, there’s plenty of emotion and disruptions with two coaches in the middle of hysteria, dominating all conversations leading up to this weekend’s Final Four.

“I’m as close to John Calipari as I am to (Kansas coach) Bill Self and (Ohio State coach) Thad Matta,” Pitino told reporters two days before the Louisville-Kentucky battle. “But they don’t coach at Louisville or Kentucky, so you’re not going to write or listen to it.”

In this case, while Pitino is modifying his team for one of the most talented teams in the nation, he’s downplaying the truth and refuses to reveal what the relationship really is like. And however, he’s a competitor chipping away at a good friend for all we know.

“We’re cordial,” Pitino said. “If we were at the Marriott in Las Vegas and we were recruiting, we’d have lunch together and a beer together. That’s our relationship. There’s no animosity. It’s just we’re competitors, and we want to win. We want to beat each other out for recruits. That’s the truth.”

Perhaps we should consider it a wonderful comeback for Pitino, who reached the Final Four for his sixth appearance — now with a chance to knock off Kentucky, a program he once led to a national championship back in 1996. It’s a gratifying moment, and maybe even one of the proudest moments Pitino, 59, has ever seen in his noteworthy career. For once, the most spectacular event is happening, which is the first Final Four between Louisville and Kentucky — representing a basketball-infatuated region. Our infatuation for basketball, which is unparalleled across the nation, steals our consciousness and ultimately satisfies viewers. This is a bloodier rivalry than if North Carolina and Duke played in the Final Four for the heavyweight title in a sense.

It’s the equivalent of Alabama and Auburn meeting in college football’s national championship game. This rivalry — beautiful though the contest may be — is what entices fans to keep an eye on an eventful NCAA men’s basketball tournament with our love of basketball absorbing our minds. Once again, Pitino has returned to basketball grandest stage, and no one ever imagined Louisville advancing to the Final Four. He knows he has been fortunate to have much success after a sex scandal poured forth two years ago when a woman was seeking to extort millions from him, and overcame adversity and public humiliation — keeping his coaching job at Louisville.

As tired as Pitino was hearing he couldn’t emulate and keep pace with his rival down the road in Lexington, he arrives to New Orleans as Calipari’s adversary with Louisville meeting Kentucky for what could be an instant classic. The hat is nodding to Calipari for recruiting the best talent available, as Pitino isn’t bringing in enough talent to jockey for a position on Kentucky’s level. For sheer bragging rights, with Pitino’s superlative pedigree, he’s looking to win his second national title and first with the Cardinals — and he’ll have to beat in-state rivals Kentucky to make it possible.

Evidently peeved, Pitino, who was UK’s head coach from 1989-1997, is not deify in Lexington but an enemy, a traitor — and during his tenure at Kentucky, he brought the Wildcats back to the top, escaping a recruiting scandal that defaced the program. He took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1993, and won a championship three years later, defeating Syracuse to raise the trophy. In those days, Kentucky was one of the top teams in the country as they are now, after Pitino had coaxed the best players in the nation to verbally commit and sign with the school, visiting homes and sitting in living rooms to woo kids to play for him. Then he left for the NBA, only to return at the college level on the other side of town, the wrong side of town, to stir plenty of resentment. He failed ever so miserably in over three seasons with the Boston Celtics and had been censured by the local media and fans, after lacking the ability to rejuvenate a mediocre franchise.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the latest beef of this ever-present rivalry, or even the high-stakes and history between two programs relentlessly in disfavor to each other. In a few days, Calipari could be the savior at Kentucky or vice versa if Pitino can fare well against the Wildcats and come through in the jaws of defeat for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history. The argument is now over whether this is one of the well-anticipated, heated college basketball games ever, the type of epic theater we’ll reminisce about for many years, with a pair of villainous coaches who are identified as heroes on their side of town and with a brand of talented, athletic superstars on each team of this intense rivalry.

The storyline of Calipari’s recent effectuation is the one-and-done formula he has adopted, a knack to align stars and turn freshmen into explosive superstars. It’s clearly the Calipari Way, a strategy in which he relies solely on one-and-done, NBA-ready players to produce enough wins to qualify for the Final Four, and then is bereaved of mind-blowing talent and replenishes Kentucky’s roster. Very rare does Calipari foster and discipline veterans, but has recruited the best players in the nation in the past three years. Now is a good time for him to win, with all this talent.

Years ago, the Pitino-Calipari relationship crumbled and their personalities have drastically changed, and most likely they don’t have dinner together, don’t have long conversations over the phone — they are not as close as they once were. And therefore, Pitino and Calipari only deal with each other from a professional standpoint. As for Pitino, dressed faddishly in his disco-style, tailor-made suits with his hair combed neatly, he’s racked up more feats than Calipari, masterfully building an image based on his craft and victories, greater than what Coach Cal has stockpiled.

This was not an absolute surprise -- for like many -- Calipari, the blue-collar Pittsburgh native, has battled with Pitino but never come close to matching his share of workmanship. It’s becoming clear that — given that he’s envy and dislikes Pitino in some way — he’s been waiting for such a moment like this, meeting him on the biggest stage for an intense fight. It’s a curious sight as Louisville and Pitino are the underdogs, even after he’s taken the Cardinals to the Final Four and has a bloated resume of victories and unbreakable history.

The difference is that now — with all the talent it has — Kentucky is unbeatable. They are too loaded, too talented, too explosive and too fundamentally sound to stop — and quite frankly — no one believe the Wildcats will fold at this point. He is, however, optimistic and slightly suspects that he can rob Kentucky of its dream to become national champs by Monday night, undeterred by the Wildcats as favorites to cut down the nets and travel home to Lexington with the trophy. It’s not a strange place for Calipari, reaching his second straight Final Four appearance and hoping not to fall short of a national title this year.

He hasn’t lived a perfect life, and before he accepted his dream job at Kentucky, he ran into trouble at previous schools and left behind a mess. The revelations of NCAA violations weren’t worse than Pitino’s tasteless allegations of an extortion trial. As a way to punish Calipari of his wrongdoings, he had one Final Four vacated for the Marcus Camby scandal and had another stripped at Memphis on academic fraud charges on Derrick Rose. In a time when Calipari runs the program Pitino once directed, he is spearheading the most talented team we’ve witnessed in years, with plenty of first-round picks such as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

This is finally a chance for Calipari to beat Pitino. This is finally a shot for Calipari to soar to new heights by knocking off a rival.

The year might have finally come for Calipari, just as much as it has come for Pitino.