Coaches in first national semifinal both former DII athletes
The spotlight hasn’t always shined this brightly on Jim Calhoun and John Calipari, but the wattage will be high Saturday when two of most high-profile coaches in Division I men’s basketball meet in the Connecticut-Kentucky semifinal in Houston.
As is the case with the two coaches in the first semifinal game, Calhoun and Calipari will be relying on their roots outside of Division I to win college basketball’s biggest prize.
|THEY AREN'T ALONE|
Both Butler coach Brad Stevens, who has now led the Bulldogs to back-to-back appearances on college basketball’s biggest stage, and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart are former Division III student-athletes.
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Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart are former Division III student-athletes at DePauw and Kenyon, respectively. Calhoun and Calipari, meanwhile, had their starts in Division II.
Calhoun was a forward at American International, where he graduated with a sociology degree in 1968. Calipari originally attended North Carolina-Wilmington, transferred to Division II Clarion and graduated with a marketing degree while playing point guard on the basketball team.
Both men have been generous to their alma maters through the years. Calhoun, who led Connecticut to the 1999 and 2004 NCAA titles, is on the board of trustees at American International, which is located in Springfield, Mass.
“We’re just 40 minutes away across the state line,” said American International Director of Athletics Rich Bedard. “He has spoken to our team on occasion.”
Calhoun, 68, has also brought in his alma mater to play exhibition games against the Huskies. The athletics department receives a guarantee from UConn, which helps with the budget.
“It is a magnificent thing for our kids to go to Gampel Pavilion or the Civic Center in Hartford to play Connecticut,” Bedard said. “We played them in the first exhibition game this year. We didn’t give (Connecticut All-American guard) Kemba Walker too much competition.”
Bedard, who has worked at American International for 49 years, grew up in the area watching Calhoun as a player. “I was in junior high, and I remember watching Jim play,” Bedard said. “He was a good. He could shoot and was a tough player.”
Like Calhoun, Calipari has stayed close to his roots. Clarion AD Dave Katis remembers getting a phone call while he was on vacation in the summer of 2009. It was from his assistant, who told him that he needed to call John Calipari.
“She said John wanted to play a basketball game against us,” Katis said. “I said, ‘C’mon!’ I got back to John and he wanted to know what would be a good date for us to play. I told him to pick the date, and we’ll show up.”
So Clarion made the tip to Rupp Arena to take on a Kentucky team that eventually advanced to the regional finals of the 2010 NCAA tournament.
Katis was a student at Clarion at the same time Calipari was playing for the basketball team. They had a gym class together, but weren’t particularly close friends while in college.
“I was the manager for the football team, so a couple of my friends lived in the same dorm as John,” Katis said. “You never think 30 years later that someone you saw play in college is going to be the head coach at Kentucky.”
Katis is in his seventh year as athletics director, but before that he was the director of major gifts and college development at the Clarion University Foundation.
“John and his wife, Ellen, have been generous to us through the years,” Katis said. “John also has set up two scholarships for the basketball team to honor his high school and college coaches.”
Calipari will have plenty of fans rooting for him in Clarion, Pa., on Saturday night.
“We are having a big party at my house, and everyone will be rooting for Kentucky,” Katis said.