NEW ORLEANS — When the 1995-96 UK men’s basketball team made it’s run to a national championship it had to go twice through an upstart coach from the Atlantic 10: John Calipari.
The Wildcats, then coached by now UofL head coach Rick Pitino, suffered one of their two losses that year to Calipari’s Massachussetts squad in the second game of the season. In the Final Four, UK avenged that loss with an 81-74 win.
Now, 16 years later, Calipari and Pitino are set to square off in the Final Four again, under vastly different circumstances.
“You don’t want to lose to anybody,” Calipari said Tuesday. “Like, anybody. It doesn’t matter: him, them, you just don’t want to lose. But someone’s got to.”
Calipari’s and Pitino’s careers have crossed several times since the 1996 Final Four, and their teams have been remarkably even over time.
Pitino had a clear advantage versus Calipari’s Massachusetts teams at UK, compiling a 4-1 record across the seven seasons they were leading the two programs. The two coaches were regular opponents after they returned from the NBA to Louisville and Memphis, where they were 4-4 against each other in four seasons playing annually in Conference USA.
The advantage has shifted to Calipari since he was named UK’s head coach with a 3-0 record versus Pitino’s Cardinals during the past three seasons.
Calipari and Pitino have both been a head coach in the same division for 18 college seasons and have compiled an 8-8 record in head-to-head meetings. The coaches experienced similar results in the two seasons they went head-to-head in the NBA, when Calipari’s New Jersey Nets were 3-3 versus Pitino’s Boston Celtics.
Their relationship dates bake even further than their head coaching experience.
“When John Calipari was a 17-year-old, 16-year-old at the Five Star camp, I knew him really well as a camper,” Pitino said. “Then when he became a counselor from Clarion State I believe, I knew him really well and thought really highly of him as a young teacher in the game.”
Pitino was on the committee that picked Calipari to be the head coach at Massachusetts, but he says their competitive relationship did not really develop until they met in Conference USA.
“Not until Memphis did our competitiveness become part of our lives because Memphis and Louisville were chief competitors,” he said. “At Kentucky now, it’s the same thing.”
Popular perception in the Bluegrass State is that Pitino and Calipari have no love lost between them. Pitino insisted during his Final Four news conference on Thursday that perception is not the case.
“We’re cordial,” he said. “If we were at the Marriott in Las Vegas, and we we’re recruiting we’d have lunch together, have a beer together. That’s our relationship.
“It’s not the relationship I have with Billy Donovan or Herb Sendek or Ralph Willard or Kevin Willard or Mick Cronin or Marvin Menzies or Reggie Theus or any of the other guys who have worked for me. They are my inner circle.”
Pitino compared his relationship with Calipari to his relationship with the other Final Four coaches.
“I am as close to John Calipari as I am to Bill Self and Thad Matta,” he said. “They don’t coach at Louisville and Kentucky, so you’re not going to write or listen about it.”
In December before the teams’ first meeting this season, Calipari also said there was no ill will between him and Pitino.
“I don’t, and I don’t believe he does either,” Calipari said. “I don’t believe it. Obviously we’re 90 miles from each other, but very rarely are we recruiting against each other. We play one time a year, so the only thing it can be is I’m worried his team is better than mine or he’s worried my team is better than his.”
Asked earlier this week about Pitino’s chances to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Calipari was complimentary of his rival.
“What he’s done over his career, building programs and all the things that he’s done, yes I do (think he’ll get in),” Calipari said. “I didn’t even look at who’s in the class, but eventually he will be if he’s not now. And he probably deserves it now.”
Pitino said Thursday that any perceived animosity is due to the two coaches competitiveness.
“We want to win, and we want to beat each other out for recruits,” he said. “That’s the truth.”
As for all the reports to the contrary, Pitino said that’s just conjecture.
“You can write whatever else you want to write, but that’s the truth,” he said. “The truth speaks for itself.”
Calipari vs. Pitino
UK vs. UMASS
1989-90 — NONE
1990-91 — NONE
1991-92 — L (90-69), L (87-77)*
1992-93 — NONE
1993-94 — L (67-64)
1994-95 — NONE
1995-96 — W (92-82), L (81-74)*
UofL vs. Memphis
2001-02 — W (80-70)
2002-03 — W (80-73), L (78-75)*
2003-04 — W (62-58), L (66-60)
2004-05 — W (85-68), L (53-44), L (75-74)*
2005-06 — NONE
2006-07 — NONE
2007-08 — NONE
2008-09 — NONE
UK vs. UofL
2009-10 — W (71-62)
2010-11 — W (78-63)
2011-12 — W (69-62)
TOTAL — 8-8, (Postseason — 0-4)
NBA (Nets vs. Celtics)
1997-98 — W (108-100), L (101-93), L (82-76), W (117-104)
1998-99 — L (101-92), W (99-97)
COLLEGE TOTAL — 3-3
Photo of Pitino by Mark Boxley.