ARLINGTON, Texas -- When you think of who may dislike Kentucky head coach John Calipari the most, you’d likely say Louisville. That’s what happens with rivalries. It was Tennessee when he was at Memphis and the Knicks when he was coaching the Nets. OK, that one’s a bit of a stretch but you get the idea.
What you may not realize? Connecticut is right up there near the top of the list. As head coach of Massachusetts from 1988-96, there was no bigger enemy in the state of Connecticut than John Calipari.
This was in a time before Connecticut won its three titles. This was during a time when Calipari took upstart UMass to the Final Four in 1996 and when he was able to convince a guy like Marcus Camby to come a little bit farther north to play for him instead of Jim Calhoun’s Huskies in his own backyard of Hartford.That’s one way to create a rivalry. Calhoun didn’t take to it very kindly. It’s what started their rivalry. He once called Calipari his “problem child.”
So much of it was off the court with things like recruiting. They didn’t play much back then thanks to the varying disagreements between the schools. From 1990-96, they didn’t schedule one another. When Calipari left to coach the New Jersey Nets, it was game on. It was easy for emotions to bubble up when it was all talk -- when it couldn’t be settled on the floor.
“It was a rivalry,” Calipari said. “We wanted it to be, they did not. Which I don't blame them.”
Years have passed now, and UConn has those three national championships and Calipari has rebuilt Kentucky back into the power that it once was with one national title under his belt. But UConn has always kind of been in the way for him.
Remember the 2011 Final Four? The semifinal matchup in Houston put the two together. The two coach Cals. They had met at the Maui Invitational earlier in the year where UConn won. And then UConn won again in that semifinal, propelling Calhoun to his third and final national championship.
On-the-court results? Calhoun 4, Calipari 2.
Now, it’s no longer two Cals. It’s just Calipari. Sure, Calhoun is still around the program and is in Arlington rooting on his Huskies louder than ever. Maybe that will help Kevin Ollie and his Huskies.
Things have, let’s say, cooled a bit. No one ever said there was no respect.
“What I loved about what Jim Calhoun did at Connecticut, it became the catalyst to absolutely change that whole university,” Calipari said. “It was the catalyst. He was the catalyst. They had their billion dollar redo of the campus. So from that time, while he was there, it became a different campus. They used basketball to change the whole culture on the campus and everything else. All I can tell you is I've always had respect for the program, the players in it … I've gotten along with all those kids that were in that program.”
It’s a very different relationship for Calipari and Ollie. They’ve worked together in the past. They are the furthest thing from rivals. Ollie played on the Philadelphia 76ers when Calipari was an assistant during the 1999-2000 season.
“When Kevin was in Philadelphia, we had a chance to be together and all I can tell is he is one of the wonderful people that I've ever come across in my life,” Calipari said. “Genuine, loyal, and a great coach.”
Coaching rivalries aren’t common in the world of college basketball. You know, the ones that are filled with pure hatred. They just don’t make them like they used to. That’s what was so rare about Cal vs. Cal. For someone in the coaching fraternity to say something negative to the media about another brother? It was bad.
Ollie represents the new at UConn. A Calhoun product who has come back to Storrs to help lead the Huskies back to a national title game. So if he’s a Calhoun guy, he must not like Calipari, right? For all you hoping for a melee Monday night on the sidelines of AT&T Stadium, keep dreaming.
“John does a great job,” Ollie said. “Wonderful coach. Everybody says he's a great motivator, yeah, but he's a great coach, too, to get all those guys to buy in and not give up on them.”
I dare you to go find a quote similar out of Calhoun’s mouth. You won’t. And that’s OK. That rivalry has been put to bed, and Monday night begins a new one.