Jim Calhoun and John Calipari, the men on the sidelines for Saturday's Kentucky-Connecticut Final Four matchup, have had their share of trouble — with each other, the programs they run and the NCAA.
HOUSTON — Nobody will dispute that they are great coaches, and the latest evidence lies in the teams they guided to this year’s Final Four.
Nobody will argue that John Calipari and Jim Calhoun are saints, either.
The men on the sidelines for Saturday’s Kentucky-Connecticut Final Four matchup have had their share of trouble — with each other, the programs they run and the NCAA.
Most Read Stories
- Seahawks, Titans only teams to both not take the field during day of anthem protests across NFL WATCH
- A daring betrayal helped wipe out Cali cocaine cartel
- Huskies get first test of season out of the way and they aced it with win at Colorado | Larry Stone
- Analysis: Three things we learned from the Seahawks' 33-27 loss to the Tennessee Titans
- Pete Carroll responds to Trump comments, backs Seahawks: 'We stand for our players and their constitutional rights'
They are a microcosm of everything that’s right and wrong in college basketball — a coach-driven game where good leaders can elevate programs and players to new levels but the road to success often produces its fair share of cringeworthy dealing.
Calipari leads the fourth-seeded Wildcats (29-8) against Calhoun and the third-seeded Huskies (30-9) in the second semifinal. Both coaches coaxed a turnaround out of their young, struggling teams to make trips to the game’s biggest stage — the third for Calipari and fourth for Calhoun.
On the eve of the game, their histories were as lively a topic as the success of their teams.
One of the first questions Calipari fielded Friday was whether he is the 21st-century version of former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, a coach who did a lot of winning in his day but did it with his phone number firmly entrenched on the NCAA’s speed dial.
The question slid off the Wildcats coach as smoothly as good Kentucky bourbon.
“I respect everything that Jerry did — his kids, how they played, all those things,” Calipari said. “But, no, I think I’m the 2011 John Calipari. I don’t know what that means, and I hate to talk in the third party. But I am who I am.”
Unlike Calhoun, Calipari has no qualms about how many of his players have had startlingly brief college careers and, indeed, views that as something of a feather in his cap. He recruits the best players, replaces them just as quickly — goodbye John Wall, hello Brandon Knight — and gets them to accept different, sometimes uncomfortable roles to come together as a team.
He is back in Houston, where three years ago he won two games at the regional to lead Memphis to the Final Four, only to leave that school a year later, just as the program was running into NCAA problems involving the recruitment of Derrick Rose.
Calipari’s first Final Four visit, with Massachusetts back in 1996, also has been scrubbed by the NCAA. Which led to another tongue-in-cheek question: How does it feel to be coaching in your first Final Four?
“I don’t deal with that,” said the 52-year-old coach, who spent four years in the NBA between his stints at UMass and Memphis. “We’ve been here three times. Those players played those games and did what they were supposed to. I’m so proud of what they’ve all accomplished.”
He says this without apology. Though his schools suffered, Calipari was not found at fault in either of the NCAA probes.
The so-called problems between Cal and Cal began during those UMass days, when the coaches were on top of each other in neighboring states — one trying to protect his turf and the other trying to carve out his own. Things got testy during the recruitment of Marcus Camby, who wound up at UMass and whose issues there eventually landed the school on probation.
Both coaches acknowledged the relationship got off to a rough start.
“I mean, the northeast, you’re so tight, you’re right on top of each other, that it is a competitive environment,” Calipari said. “Our radio shows and television shows are in each other’s states, in our cities. That’s how it is there.”
The 68-year-old Calhoun lightheartedly reprised the complaints he raised more than a decade ago about Calipari — a Pittsburgh native trying to muscle his way through New England — but made it clear the enmity has died down as the years have passed.
“From a generational standpoint, to the fact that John really was trying to claim New England,” Calhoun said of the lack of a true friendship with his counterpart.
Then, he affected his best Boston accent: “He could never say he pahked the caah in Hahvahd Yahd, he didn’t know what clam chowder really was. I took (umbrage) to it, but I take (umbrage) to a lot of things.”