CRAWFORD | In a heated rivalry, a thaw in the Calipari-Pitino relationship?
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) — We all think the same thing when John Calipari and Rick Pitino start making nice.
It's for the cameras. It's a good show, we all appreciate the effort, but come on. This is like the Oscars when they cut away to the losers. They're smiling and clapping, while dog-cussing the winner on the inside.
So when the obligatory compliments started rolling in Indianapolis on Thursday, there were the usual smiles and knowing nods from the assembled media.
Then Calipari said something that caught my attention.
"I would say we're friends," Calipari said. "I mean, he and I have ‑‑ we were in touch throughout the year back and forth. He'd throw something at me, I'd throw something at him. Different things about our teams."
Time out. You're saying you guys just shot the breeze? No way. That can't be, right. Can it?
Turns out, it can. Calipari's story checks out. I asked someone close to Pitino, "Did these guys really talk?"
The response was "Yes. There were a couple of conversations."
I couldn't find out when, or what was discussed, or the substance. But yes, they talked.
For one thing, Calipari likely was appreciative of what Pitino said about him when he was somewhat embattled this season — you remember, a month ago, after he'd been kicked out of a loss at South Carolina and all of a sudden everything from Calipari's health to his future to his basketball philosophy was being questioned.
Somebody asked Pitino about Calipari during a news conference, and Pitino said: "He has a national championship, a Final Four. I don't think he's ever leaving Kentucky. I don't think he's ever leaving. He feels, in his mind, which is the most important person, that he has the best job in college basketball. Where's he going to go? He's not going to be a Wall Street trader.
"I give him an A as a teacher," Pitino said. "I give him an A as a recruiter. I give him an A as a preparer," Pitino said. "It's tough to do what he does. It's very, very difficult coaching new groups each year. You don't know what you have. You have no idea. That's the way he does it. "I think he's excellent," Pitino said. "I don't think Kentucky can get any better than John Calipari. I'm objective. How are you going to get better than him at what he does? Are they having a great year? No, but you wouldn't want to play them at tournament time. I'm a big believer in the way he teaches and the way he recruits. They can't get better than him."
True to his word, Pitino drew the Wildcats this week in Lucas Oil Stadium in the NCAA's round of 16, and Pitino doesn't want to play them. But they're the obstacle on his way to a potential third straight Elite Eight appearance.
These two men at the center of college basketball's most heated rivalry are also the two hottest coaches in college basketball. With a win, Rick Pitino would pass Mike Krzyzewski for highest NCAA Tournament winning percentage among active coaches.
If you counted his vacated games from Memphis and Massachusetts, Calipari would do the same.
Calipari said he thinks the two are older and wiser, and too busy to carry on too much animosity.
"We're getting older, both of us, and I think I'm not on his mind and he's not on my mind, so to speak," Calipari said. "We all got tough jobs, what we're doing. I know that he's a great coach. He's done it at different programs. His kids play with great energy and they play with confidence, and it's every year. And so the stuff about they're at each other's throats, it's just not accurate. I'd be stunned if he thinks of me in a week, like my‑‑ both of us have tough jobs that we have to be engulfed in what we do."
The coaches passed in a corridor of Lucas Oil Stadium yesterday and paused to talk. I didn't eavesdrop. Some who were nearby said former Pitino assistant Steve Masiello may have come up. I don't know. They appeared pleasant and at ease. Pitino said the perception of animosity doesn't concern him.
"I don't care about perception because perception is not reality," Pitino said. "We're friends. We respect each other's programs very much and we're friends in this business. And I certainly have great respect for what they're accomplishing right now. But it really doesn't matter what perception is because perception is not reality in this world."
"He's one of the premier coaches in our game. Has always been," Pitino said. "The thing that I remember most about John, because I've known him since he was 15, is he always didn't have one‑and‑dones. He had a team at Massachusetts, and I knew where he took them from to today. And he had the least amount of talent on the court when he went out there. And he didn't play an easy schedule. He had to take a lot of people on to get Massachusetts in the limelight. I've seen all stages of John's career. And so it doesn't surprise me that they're playing well at this time. It was a great game the other night by both teams. I know how good Wichita is. Now they're a much better offensive time this year than last year, much better defensive team. Wichita is a great basketball team. Kentucky beat a great basketball team."
I went through a nearly two-year book-writing process with Pitino, and Calipari never really came up. There's a passage or two that might be applicable to Calipari in Pitino's book, but those are talking in general about what it's like to be UK's coach.
You'll still hear old friends of both say that there's too much built-in animosity coaching at these two schools to make anything approaching a true reconciliation possible.
Maybe so. But in recent months, both have showed a softer side.
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