Sports Nut

Pitino vs. Calipari

The great college basketball debate: Which slick super-coach should you root for in the Final Four?

Head coaches Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals and John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Head coaches Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals and John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats

Photograph of Pitino by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images. Photograph of Calipari by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images.

John Calipari and Rick Pitino are not friends. Those who’d like to parse their mutual contempt in advance of Saturday’s Final Four matchup between Louisville and Kentucky should consult S.L. Price’s indispensible 2011 Sports Illustrated profile of Calipari. According to Price, Pitino has long claimed that he kickstarted his rival’s career, recommending him for the head coaching job at UMass (Pitino is an alum) and writing a $5,000 check so the school could afford Calipari’s salary. Others say that version of events is a “myth,” and Paul Evans—Calipari’s boss at the University of Pittsburgh—tells SI that Pitino brought up a pernicious rumor at a 1986 Big East coaches meeting: that Calipari told recruits that St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca was deathly ill with cancer. (Carnesecca was not sick, and Pitino now says he never believed the rumor.)

This brief passage from the SI piece distills their relationship today:

[W]hen first approached to talk about Calipari, Pitino says, “I really don’t know him, so I’d prefer not to.”

Asked why Pitino would say that, Calipari nearly chokes and says, “I would just tell you: I respect him, respect what he’s done over his career.” Then he yells in a voice thick with sarcasm, “And thank him for all the help he’s given me over my career!”

It’s not quite right to say the 53-year-old Calipari and the 59-year-old Pitino hate each other because they’re exactly alike. Yes, they’re both Italian-Americans who coached at Kentucky, popularized up-tempo basketball, failed in the NBA, and have lifetime memberships in the National Organization of Men with Slicked-Back Hair. But I suspect the real reason they’re not pedaling around New Orleans this weekend on a tandem bicycle is that Calipari is the evolutionary Pitino.

Pitino emerged from college basketball’s ooze in the 1980s and 1990s as a new kind of coach, leading Providence and Kentucky to four Final Fours (none vacated) behind his mastery of the three-point shot and the full-court press. (He’s since added two more Final Fours in his second act at Louisville.) Calipari seized his forebear’s strategic gambits even as he took a swan dive back into the ooze. The result: four Final Fours at UMass, Memphis, and Kentucky (two of those were later vacated) and the persistent tag that he’s the sleaziest coach in a sleazy game.

Calipari isn’t a cheater, officially. When UMass was stripped of its 1996 Final Four appearance due to Marcus Camby’s taste for agent-provided cash and prostitutes, Calipari wasn’t implicated. And when Memphis’ 38-win 2008 season was wiped from history due to allegations that someone who wasn’t Derrick Rose took Derrick Rose’s SAT, Calipari—who had already shipped off to Kentucky—dodged the NCAA’s bullets again. “This is awe-inspiring,” Charlie Pierce wrote in Slate two years ago. “Two schools, at different times and in different places, both with their greatest seasons erased from the record books, and both of them coached by the same guy.”

It’s impossible to profess your belief in Calipari’s blamelessness without looking willfully naive—I’m shocked, shocked to find that agents and AAU coaches are in the bleachers. At the same time, Calipari performs a valuable service in unmasking college basketball as a big-money farce, a billion-dollar industry where the “student-athletes” are a convenient fig leaf. Calipari very reasonably treats his college roosts as finishing schools for soon-to-be pros. His NBA-squads-in-waiting at Memphis and now Kentucky don’t align with the jump-shots-and-study-hall image the NCAA wants to cultivate, but Calipari fulfills his promise to his players: He makes them better on the court, and he gets them to the pros.

By contrast with Calipari, Pitino has been tagged directly with NCAA rule-breaking. As an assistant at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s, Pitino was, according to the New York Times, charged with “providing round-trip air fare for a player between New York and Honolulu, arranging for student-athletes to receive used cars for season tickets, and … providing misinformation to the NCAA and University of Hawaii officials.”

But Pitino, though never universally beloved, hasn’t ever been seen as a Calipari-grade scofflaw. That’s because he quickly proved he didn’t need overwhelming talent to win, building a reputation as a coaching savant by leading relatively talent-poor Providence and Kentucky squads on deep tournament runs. (That reputation would’ve soared still higher if he’d put a guy on Grant Hill in the Elite Eight in 1992.) Besides, when he took over in Lexington, UK was coming off crippling NCAA sanctions. Rick Pitino was the coach who got you out of probation hell, not the guy who got you into it.

In 2009, Pitino’s relatively banal Louisville tenure was interrupted by an off-court transgression. The married coach admitted to having sex with a woman named Karen Sypher in the back room of a restaurant, then giving her $3,000 to have an abortion. A year later, Sypher was found guilty in federal court of trying to extort Pitino. Even so, the university faced calls to cut Pitino loose.

Two years later, with the Cardinals back in the Final Four, Pitino has been fully rehabilitated. News items on Sypher’s new book have been outnumbered by those celebrating a kinder, gentler, more lovable Pitino, a man who found perspective after the death of his brother-in-law on Sept. 11. “This Pitino is changed,” writes Rick Reilly. “He’s grayer and softer and happier. He laughs. He indulges. He forgives.”

Why, in 2012, do we think Pitino’s such a nice guy? Because his team doesn’t have any surefire NBA stars. Just as he received gushing praise for leading the underdog Providence Friars to the Final Four in 1987, the coach is now getting bouquets for steering an overachieving Louisville Cardinals squad to the NCAA semis.

Calipari’s reputation doesn’t wax and wane with the talent level of his teams because the talent level of his teams doesn’t wax and wane. As college basketball’s NBA gatekeeper, Calipari wins games without flaunting his coaching skill. For the Kentucky coach, then, an NCAA title would be redemptive but not exculpatory. If the Wildcats win it all, Calipari won’t have to hear that he’s never won the big one. But no matter how many banners he raises, he’ll always be considered a bogeyman and a huckster.

A Pitino victory would be a story of redemption and Cinderella’s plucky spirit—a triumph for college basketball as we’d like it to be. A Calipari victory would be a triumph of sleaze and capitalism and dark forces we don’t quite understand. We have enough fairy tales in sports as it is. That’s why I’m rooting for John Calipari, and for a triumph for college basketball as it really is.