Jim Calhoun at practice on Thursday (AP)
April 2, 2011
HOUSTON (AP) - Nobody will dispute that they are great coaches, and the latest evidence lies in the teams they guided to this year's Final Four.
John Calipari leads the fourth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats (29-8) against Jim Calhoun and the third-seeded Huskies (30-9) in the second semifinal Saturday. Both coaches coaxed a turnaround out of their young, struggling teams to make unexpected 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.
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.
The history between the two began during Calipari's 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 choosing 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 his relationship 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."
As magical as this season has been - Kemba Walker's emergence as an national star, the five-wins-in-five-nights title at the BIG EAST tournament, then four more wins and the unexpected Final Four trip - it also has been a drain on Calhoun.
Meanwhile, the saga of Cal vs. Cal lingers on, albeit in a more amicable light now than 15 years ago.
Earlier in the week, Calhoun was referring to his three Final Four coaching counterparts and called them, "my three sons - my two sons plus my problem child," in a reference to the classic 1960s TV show that starred Fred MacMurray.
Calipari picked up on that one Friday: "I did tell him that I knew Fred MacMurray," he said, "and Mr. Calhoun, you are no Fred MacMurray."
FINAL FOUR GOVERNORS WAGER ICE CREAM VS. HAM: Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy is putting up some ice cream from the University of Connecticut's dairy bar against a country ham in a Final Four wager with Kentucky's governor.
Malloy spokesman David Bednarz says the governor has not negotiated the amount of ice cream the state will give to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear if the Huskies lose.
Bednarz said Malloy is negotiating a similar bet with Indiana's governor on the Final Four matchup between Connecticut's women's basketball team (36-1) and Notre Dame (32-4), a team UConn has beaten three times this season.
FEARLESS NAPIER: Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier doesn't play with the timidity of a freshman. Napier, at times, plays more like a senior, afraid of almost nothing, including his head coach.
"You'd have to line up a dragon with fire coming out before he would even flinch," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "My point is that he's fearless. He's got a heck of a future because he's got that internal fortitude that a kid needs."