NEW ORLEANS — All week long in the run-up to the Final Four, the focal point for most people not from Ohio or Kansas has been Pitino-Calipari. Or Calipari-Pitino. Regardless of how you say it or write it, the notion that Rick Pitino and John Calipari, the former king of Kentucky and the current king of Kentucky, would be facing each other at the Final Four has turned Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville game into a coaching soap opera.
Can Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, the former king who deserted Wildcat Nation only to come back to invade its sacred turf, somehow unseat Kentucky’s John Calipari, the boyish king?
Can the boyish king cement his place forever in the Kentucky pantheon by taking down the evil former king en route to ending a 14-year drought between national titles?
What will happen throughout the state if the former king somehow takes down the boyish king? Can all the sharp objects be hidden quickly enough if a top-seeded, two-loss Kentucky team somehow loses to a Louisville team that went into the Big East tournament as a No. 7 seed?
All week long, Calipari and Pitino, who first got to know each other almost 30 years ago, have sparred, each making sure not to be openly hostile while the tension has simmered. On Friday, as the four teams went through the required open practices watched by thousands of rapturous Kentucky fans, it was Pitino’s turn to take a few shots at Calipari, even though most of them centered on a preseason quote that Calipari claimed was misinterpreted.
There was also some pregame ref-jockeying. Calipari made a point of letting everyone know that Louisville is a team that likes to take a lot of charges and he expected to see a lot of that in the first few minutes of the game. (Refs, beware — they like to flop!)
Earlier in the week, in the most complimentary terms possible when someone has their tongue in their cheek, Calipari mentioned Louisville’s “scratching, gouging and clawing” when talking about the Cardinals’ defensive style. All with the utmost respect, of course. When that subject came up to Pitino on Friday, he laughed.
“He’s done that since his U-Mass. days when he spoke about our Kentucky team in ’96,” Pitino said, referring to the matchup between Pitino-led Kentucky and Calipari-led Massachusetts in the 1996 Final Four. “He thinks the referees read the newspaper. He thinks the referees stay up at night and listen to Coach Cal’s comments. They really don’t.
“I can play a tape back from [the run-up to the 1996 Final Four] when I was at Kentucky, pretty much the same thing as well. Pretty much the same operating procedure. You don’t have to write it down because you heard it back in ’96.”
No tension there, right?
On the subject of Calipari’s preseason implication that the state of Kentucky was unique because it only has one program, Pitino went into his older-brother routine.
“We have to say so many things in life,” he said. “Every now and then you’re going to say something that’s not correct. At one time [former Kentucky Coach] Eddie Sutton said, ‘We like Louisville, we treat them like a little brother.’
“John has only been in this state three years, so he doesn’t know the magnitude of Louisville basketball, for that matter the history. You say so many things, you’re going to make a mistake. I’ve made so many myself.”
Sigh. Kids. They just have to learn from their mistake.
Of course, when the subject came up to Calipari he was primed and ready.
“I didn’t say that,” he said. “Can I say this again now, what I said?
“I said the state is unique in that there are Kentucky fans throughout the state. . . . I mean, it’s just different. Now, Louisville has their base of fans. Louisville is a great program. What I said was, we have a ton of Kentucky fans in Louisville. It’s just a unique place. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was no disrespect.”
Actually, Calipari is right about all the Kentucky fans who live in Louisville. But that really isn’t different from the plethora of North Carolina fans who live in Durham or the Maryland fans who live on Georgetown’s doorstep. State schools always have more fans.
Which is why there is so much tension this week among Kentucky fans. The only thing they could possibly hate more than losing to Louisville would be losing to a Louisville team coached by Pitino, who was their hero after taking the Wildcats to three Final Fours in five seasons from 1993 to 1997 and then became their answer to Benedict Arnold when he left to run the Boston Celtics. Except that Benedict Arnold never came back to try to overthrow the newly formed U.S. government when the Revolutionary War was over. Pitino did.
And now he stands at the gates of Big Blue Nation — ready to storm the castle.
Pitino insists he still loves Kentucky — that he’ll pull for the Wildcats and Calipari on Monday should his team lose. Calipari remembers hugging Pitino after his Massachusetts team lost on this same stage to Pitino’s Kentucky team 16 years ago. “What I remember about that game is hugging Rick, telling him, ‘I’m happy for you and I really want you to win your championship.’ At that time he had not won one yet.’”
Pitino won his championship two nights later against Syracuse. He has been back to the Final Four three times since then — one more time at Kentucky and now twice at Louisville. Calipari has not yet won a championship of his own and, at 53, certainly must feel some pressure to finally win his championship. “I don’t,” he insisted Friday. “I don’t. My family and friends, yeah, that’s different.”
Pitino was 43 when Calipari’s wish for him came true and he cut down the last net at the Meadowlands in 1996, officially making himself King for Life in Kentucky.
But then, a year later, he abdicated. Now Calipari sits on the throne knowing full well that Pitino could make the crown lie uneasy if he somehow figures a way to beat Calipari’s team on Saturday.
But neither one of them is thinking about any of that. This is just about winning a game in order to play for the national championship.
Seriously. That’s all it’s about. Cal and Rick, friends forever.
Sort of like Tom and Jerry.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
feinstein. For more by the author, visit feinsteinonthebrink.com.