CRAWFORD | Behind the scenes, Calipari and Huggins banter, but relish rivalry at 'grown up table'
John Calipari and Bob Huggins go back a long way. WDRB sports columnist Eric Crawford caught a brief interaction with them away from the cameras on Wednesday, and looks at their history heading into Thursday night's Midwest Regional semifinal in Cleveland.
Wednesday, March 25th 2015, 4:27 pm EDT by
Wednesday, March 25th 2015, 6:03 pm EDT
CLEVELAND (WDRB) — His time on the NCAA Midwest Regional news conference stage is over, and Bob Huggins is standing outside the West Virginia locker room talking to a couple of reporters.
They're asking about his old friend, University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose unbeaten Wildcats will face Huggins' Mountaineers on Thursday night.
Huggins is asked what has gotten Calipari where he is, and he's trying his best to sum up Calipari's drive. He explains that he hasn't always driven the Cadillac program of college basketball.
“UMass was not an easy job,” Huggins says, “And Memphis is a great job now. But it wasn't in great shape when he got it.”
A few seconds later, a voice booms from down the hall. It's Calipari.
“Hey Hugs!” Calipari shouts. “What's happening?”
And the banter begins.
“I'm sick of saying nice things about you,” Huggins counters.
“I'm gonna go lie about you in a minute, don't worry about it,” Calipari said. “My nose goes like this (mimicks growing) ‘Huggins-Huggins-Huggins.' People when I turn are ducking.”
Huggins smiles, and says, “Don't step in the vomit back there. Because I puked when I got off the stage from saying nice things about you.”
“You're sick,” Calipari says. “You are.”
These guys can say whatever they want about each other. Behind the scenes, there's a comfort level that lets you know that the familiarity isn't just for the cameras.
They ask Huggins to tell the heart attack story. It's a strange request, but that's what the reporters want. Pittsburgh airport, 2002. Huggins starts sweating. He gets short of breath. He passes out on the sidewalk. Comes to in the ambulance. In and out.
“He radios to the drivers and says what's the ETA,” Huggins tells reporters. “They said 22 minutes. I said, man, I'm not making 22 minutes, so he called abort, abort, about. And I'm passing out and coming back to. I noticed when I came back that he was paying a lot better attention to me then. So I came to and I was fairly coherent at that time and he said, coach, listen, I can't let you die. I'm John Calipari's cousin and you can't die until we beat you at least once.”
Laughter. Happy ending.
The first time they met was in high school. Huggins was a friend of one of Calipari's high school teammates.
“We didn't know each other great then,” he said. “But then over the years we've got to be very close. We kind of grew up kind of the same way in the same area and a lot of things in common that way.”
Sure. Huggins has been through having the dominant team in college basketball. He's had a taste of that. He took over a program at Cincinnati and breathed new life into it. He built it. He had a string of NBA players. His best shot at a national championship was dashed when Kenyon Martin went down with a broken leg in the 2000 Conference USA Tournament.
The Bearcats had been the No. 1 team in then nation for 12 weeks prior to that. They were 28-2 when Martin went down. The Basketball Writers' coach of the year that season? Larry Eustacy at Iowa State.
Calipari has had some great teams at Kentucky. The coach of the year honors have gone elsewhere.
“He and I used to be the young coaches, we were the young guys, and we turn around and now we're the old guys,” Calipari said. “I don't understand that. What happened? I've always respected what he does coaching his basketball teams, how hard they play, how physical they play, how they rebound.
“I bet you Bobby could talk about getting it going at Cincinnati just like I talk about getting it going at UMass,” Calipari said. “It's kind of like that first opportunity you have and you're in a dogfight. You're not sitting at the big table, you're at the little table on the side with all the little kids and you're trying to figure out how could we eat at the main table, how do we get there?”
Huggins is 8-2 against Calipari, but a lot of that came when Huggins had the upper hand, a program at Cincinnati that was rolling. That wasn't necessarily the case in 2010, when Huggins' No. 2 seed West Virginia beat Calipari's No. 1 seeded UK team that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe, among others.
So Huggins has had the experience of knocking one of Calipar's better teams out of the tournament. What can he draw on from that?
“If Cal promises to miss his first 20 threes like they did in 2010, that would help,” Huggins said.
Calipari noted, “The game that we played in 2010, it was a different game. They were the two seed. We were the one seed. It was a regional final. . . . I think we went 0-20 from the three-point line. So to even be in the game at 0-20, I must have had a hell of a team. Which I did.”
It's a matchup both would probably like to avoid.
“I don't like coaching against friends, period,” Huggins said.
He notes that Calipari not only has mastered the way he handles his talented roster, but also the public demands of the UK spotlight.
“He's done an unbelievable job,” Huggins said.
Calipari has moved onto the grown-up table. It's the kind of mega-job Huggins doesn't covet.
“It's not that I can't be charming,” he said. “It's that I choose not to.”
So he brings in a team built on full-court pressure and playing with no abandon on defense. It's a high-risk, high-reward style. That he is still able to adopt new styles, Calipari said, “He's doing stuff this year I've not seen him do, and that tells you what kind of coach he is.”
One more meeting for the old friends, very much at the grown-up table.
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