All roads lead to Calipari, Pitino
Two coaches who've followed similar career arcs meet in the Final Four
Well before John Calipari's coronation as King of Kentucky, Rick Pitino wore the crown in the Commonwealth, in case the former needs reminding of its considerable weight. In 1996, Pitino guided a Wildcats team possessing an overwhelming collection of talent to the national championship, ending a trophy drought that had lasted almost 20 years.
Now it's Calipari's turn to sate the ravenous appetite of the Kentucky faithful. The current incarnation of Wildcats bears a striking resemblance to Pitino's Cats in the sheer force of their talent; they've appeared without peer in this year's NCAA tournament. They'll have to go through Louisville if they're to deliver upon their promise, although Pitino's Cardinals more closely resemble his plucky Providence squad that reached the 1987 Final Four in New Orleans than any of his UK contenders.
When Kentucky and Louisville meet in the Final Four at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Saturday, it will not only resume one of college basketball's most impassioned rivalries but also mark the convergence of the careers of two of the game's most recognizable personalities.
Their career trajectories bear a striking symmetry -- apprenticeships under coaching icons, reforming upstart New England universities, failed NBA ventures and, yes, Kentucky.
ESPN.com interviewed several former and current colleagues, former players, friends and administrators who have been involved with Pitino and Calipari, attempting to trace the lineage of their careers from their first coaching jobs to their meeting in New Orleans on Saturday.
After graduating in 1974 from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he played under the late Jack Leaman, Rick Pitino spent two years as an assistant at Hawaii, including a six-game stint as interim head coach. From there, he joined newly hired Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's staff. After spending two years serving under Boeheim, Pitino accepted an offer to become head coach at Boston University. He was 25.
John Kuester (Pitino assistant at BU, current assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers): He was a tremendous motivator [at BU]. That was the thing that I always remember most about him, was listening to his pregame talks, listening to how he approached practice. There was a passion. He was outstanding in what he was doing.
1983-85: New York
Pitino guided the Terriers to an America East title and an NCAA tournament appearance in 1983. He then made his first foray into the professional ranks, joining Hubie Brown's staff as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks.
Howard Garfinkel (Five-Star basketball camp co-founder): The most important job for him was the Knicks assistant job with Hubie. I got him that one, with Hubie Brown. From there he really took off.
1982-85: Lawrence, Kan.
As Pitino's star was rising, John Calipari's was just getting off the ground. He played two years at UNC Wilmington before transferring to Clarion State, graduating in 1982. He joined Kansas' staff as a graduate assistant under Ted Owens, continuing under Larry Brown.
Larry Brown (former Kansas head coach): I lucked out. When I got to Kansas, he already was a grad assistant there. That was the reward I got. He was ridiculous, how hard he worked, and he had all these ideas. I made him the JV coach; I had been the freshman coach for Coach [Dean] Smith, and it did wonders for me. Coach [Smith] was a resource, but he wanted me to learn and teach, so that's what I did with John.
He was always in my office, running things by me.
1985-87: Providence, R.I.
After two years on Hubie Brown's staff, Pitino returned to the college game, accepting the head-coaching position at Providence, a historically successful program that had fallen on hard times. The Friars endured losing seasons in six of the previous seven years before Pitino's arrival and were struggling to keep pace in an increasingly competitive Big East.
Billy Donovan (former player under Pitino at Providence, former assistant at Kentucky and current head coach at Florida): He just didn't promise me anything, said that if I listen to him and work hard that it would be the greatest two years' experience of my life. And he was right.
John Marinatto (former Providence SID, current Big East commissioner): He was hard on everyone around him. Living with Rick wasn't easy, but it was fun.
Stu Jackson (former Pitino assistant, current executive VP of basketball operations for the NBA): Some of the legendary things that he would do was you were required to play all the time as a coach. The battles we had at Providence College at midnight and 1 in the morning among the coaching staff are legendary. He was always testing your mettle. He would always hold meetings in the sauna that would go on until the first coach dropped out. You'd be in there discussing basketball, sweating your ass off, magnetic board out, moving chips around, talking about plays and special situations in basically 110 degrees. He's an amazing human being. I don't know if they've built one like him before or since.
Marinatto: I believe the NCAA put in the 20-hour [practice] limit because of that '87 Providence team.
1987-89: New York
Providence was the darling of the 1987 NCAA tournament where, as a No. 6 seed, it knocked out Georgetown in the Elite Eight before succumbing to No. 2 seed Syracuse in the Final Four in New Orleans. The Friars' run propelled Pitino back into the NBA and back to the Knicks, only this time as a head coach.
Rick Carlisle (played for Pitino in New York during 1987-88 season, current coach of defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks): Greatest coach I ever played for. Just got more out of a group of guys than any guy I've ever seen. Great teacher, great passion for the game, great motivator. Early on, he was a guy that made me believe that coaching really does make a difference.
He could will a team to do things. It was very inspirational for me to be with him that year.
Jackson (former assistant at Providence and New York): He was tough to work for in that he was very demanding. He had very high standards and expectations, but he was the best guy to be an assistant for. He taught you and let you do the work that needed to be done and in practice every day; you're an integral part of instruction and game preparation.
I've always said for me, personally, he taught me the craft of coaching. That's something I'm indebted to him for. He was tough, and he was demanding.
But damn it, I'll tell you, he taught you how to coach. You weren't there for window dressing.
1988-96: Amherst, Mass.
While Pitino was with the Knicks, he was part of the effort to hire a new head coach at his alma mater, UMass. The Minutemen, who had endured 10 consecutive losing seasons, assembled a search committee to recommend candidates for the position. One of those candidates was a Pittsburgh assistant named John Calipari.
Glenn Wong (member of search committee, professor in Sport Management Department at the UMass Isenberg School of Management): [Pitino] was a very active member of that search committee. He shared his expertise and contacts and was able to get many qualified candidates into consideration for the job.
There wasn't an attractive facility. It was a program that was down. It's not even the job that it would be today. It wasn't a very good job. We were able to get a very strong pool of candidates for a job that wasn't that attractive.
John was one of those names. John came in [to interview] and he was not a head coach [at the time]. He was 28 or 29 years old, so he didn't have a lot of experience. He came into that interview and he was totally prepared, he brought in his notebooks with not only his offense and his defense and his special play situations, but his marketing plan and his community relations plan and just did an outstanding job in that interview.
Larry Brown: I remember I'm in the Final Four in '88 in Kansas City, on the phone with everybody at UMass. [Calipari's] telling me to call this guy, call that guy.
Wong: I'm in my office and I get a call and I say, 'Hello.' 'Hi, this is Larry Brown ' and I'm thinking, Wait a minute, you're at the Final Four and you're calling me?'
Almost everybody can get a good list of references, and my line of demarcation is who will pick up the phone on your behalf.
Bruiser Flint (former assistant at UMass, current coach at Drexel): The thing I liked about Cal from the very beginning is that he's very honest. Everyone thinks he's a bulls----er, but the things he talks about actually come true.
He's not trying to sell a kid a dream. He talks reality. That's why kids are really loyal to him. They recruit for him, because the things he talks about come true. The best thing I can say about him, is that he doesn't try to sell you a dream, he tries to tell you about living the dream. I've been there with the home visits. He can talk with the best of them. But he's not a bulls----er.
Bob Huggins (West Virginia head coach, coached in Conference USA with Cincinnati from 1995-05): I actually thought he'd do well in business. He's always been able to relate to people. He's very driven in a lot of ways. You know, Cal and I have done a lot together, and people look at me like I'm nuts when I say this, but when you're flying, most guys are reading Basketball Times, Basketball Weekly. John is reading Money Magazine or Business Weekly. I think it's interesting to him, the corporate world. He does bring it to basketball. He's a great salesman.
Wong: His mind is always on and always thinking. Every day he was coming up with new ideas on what needed to be done to improve the program. Sometimes that ends with people, but I see his mind evolving over the last 25 years.
During his eight-year tenure at UMass, Calipari led the Minutemen five Atlantic 10 championships and five NCAA tournament appearances, including the Elite Eight in 1995 and the Final Four in 1996.
1989-97: Lexington, Ky.
While Calipari was building a college basketball power from the dust in Pitino's former stomping grounds, Pitino readied himself for a return to the college game. It was perhaps the biggest challenge of his career: taking over a Kentucky program paying the consequences for previous NCAA violations that included a two-year postseason ban.
C.M. Newton (former Kentucky athletic director): I talked to Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Riley, Lute Olson, P.J. Carlesimo. And Pitino. Rick's season was still going on with the Knicks. I had to wait him out and chose to do that. I don't know what we would have done if he wouldn't have taken the job. He was the right person.
Dr. David Roselle (former University of Kentucky president): I felt good from the time I first talked to Pitino to even long after I left the University of Kentucky.
Newton: Rick's a different cat. He saw this as the Roman Empire of basketball.
Donovan: The program was in such a difficult situation. It was banned from the NCAA tournament for two years. There was no postseason play. We were really struggling because of the probation. Then we had John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus and Richie Farmer and that group. Then we ended up getting [Jamal] Mashburn. Then we were finally eligible for the tournament; we made that incredible run.
Deron Feldhaus (UK player, 1988-92): From the first meeting we met with him we knew that we better buckle down, that it was going to be tough.
Whew. I do remember him telling us, well, he pretty much scared the crap out of all of us. I do remember him telling us in that meeting that we would win.
Donovan: You had an incredible disconnect in terms of communication. I remember the first day we were there, he said something and one of the players responded with a 'Yes, sir.' If you're from the Northeast and someone says 'Yes, sir,' to you, you think they're mocking you, that they're some sort of wise guy. But in the South, when you say 'Yes, sir' it's a sign of respect. I don't think Coach Pitino understood that. He was like, 'These guys are wise guys. What are they doing yes-siring me?' There was a cultural disconnect when we got there.
Those guys were blue-blooded Kentuckians from rural areas. Here's Coach Pitino and myself and Ralph Willard and Herb Sendek -- it was more of a Northeast flavor. It was just ironic. He couldn't even understand Richie Farmer half the time. It was funny. Those guys, from a coaching style, were seeing something they'd never seen before. But they also worked harder than they ever imagined they could in their entire lives.
Richie Farmer (UK player, 1988-92): We'd never seen, I don't think any of us had ever seen a coach like him.
Jamal Mashburn (UK player, 1990-93): I always could come in and talk to him. A lot of coaches give lip service on that, but Coach Pitino, especially with me, I always walked in there and talked to him if it was about, just about anything. Anything.
In 1992, in its first season after the NCAA tournament ban ended, Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight, losing to Duke on a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater. The Wildcats' resurgence continued under Pitino, culminating with the 1996 national championship and appearance in the '97 title game.
Scott Padgett (UK player, 1995-99): We played at Arkansas during my freshman season [1994-95]. Arkansas was No. 1, and we were No. 2. It had snowed in Arkansas, and the bus couldn't pull all the way to the arena. We had to park in the parking lot, and the Arkansas fans were up on this platform above us. They started throwing snowballs. He said: 'Well, don't look at me. Get 'em!' He picked up a snowball and threw it at them. He's definitely a competitive guy and doesn't back down from a challenge.
The next challenge brought Pitino back to the NBA, this time with the Boston Celtics. In 1997, he was hired to be the Celtics' president and head coach.
Roselle: Pitino left Kentucky to go off to the Celtics. I always wondered why he would do that. He's a 'rah-rah' guy. He had the press. You tell the pros to press and it's, 'Just give me the ball, get some points for me.' I think he did it because there's never been a coach who won both an NCAA title and an NBA title. I think the reason he did it was to be the first guy. I don't think money was the reason for doing it.
Garfinkel: Nothing Rick Pitino ever did surprised me. And nothing he'll ever do will surprise me. He does a hellacious job.
By the time Pitino arrived in Boston, Calipari already had made a similar move to the NBA. In 1996, he was hired as the head coach and executive VP of the New Jersey Nets. He was fired by the Nets in 1999 and spent one season as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers under Larry Brown before returning to the college game to coach Memphis. Under Calipari, the Tigers would become one of the most successful programs in the country and reached the national championship game in 2008.
Larry Brown: When he was fired by the Nets, I called him up and asked him to come up with me. He was fine. I don't think John's confidence will ever be shaken. I will say that he acts like he doesn't care what people say about him, but he does. He badly wants people to recognize his qualities.
Josh Pastner (former assistant, current head coach at Memphis): People around the country would call and ask me, 'What's it like working for John Calipari?' I would always say, 'The guy that follows John Calipari at Memphis is an insane and utterly crazy guy. No one will be able to follow him on the court or in the community.' I stuck my foot in my mouth. I ended up being the crazy guy.
I think Coach Calipari is as underrated of a coach as there is in the country. The reason for that is because people think, 'Well, he's got the good players, so he should win.' A few things: No. 1, in this day and age, there are good players all across the country. Secondly, sometimes coaching talent is hard. It's not easy like everyone thinks it is. The other thing is that every time his team steps on the floor, they're getting the other team's best shot. They can't have an off night. If they have an off night, you're probably going to lose.
With the way he coaches a lot of kids may just walk out of the gym. He has a special talent, a special ability to get on a kid so hard and still have them play at such an intense level during a game. It's amazing to me. It's a tremendous talent.
Derrick Rose (former Memphis guard, 2011 NBA MVP with Chicago Bulls): Every single day he wanted the players, not only the players, but the coaching staff to come in there prepared to have a great practice. Every single practice. He'll kick you out of practice [if you weren't prepared]. But the way he prepared for games, it was kind of like an NBA team.
Larry Brown: He makes the game better. What these young kids come from, the AAU programs, the system we have that has created monsters. But then they see the way those young kids play, the sacrifices they've made to be a great team; it's making our game better.
Rose: I really don't know how other coaches go out there and recruit, but Cal tells you the truth and he keeps it real with you -- if you're not going to be playing as much, you're not going to be playing as much. If you need time to learn the offense, he's going to give you that time, and I'm fortunate to be able to have him and had him in the past as a coach, because he's the one, I think he's the one who groomed me for the next level.
He gave me that confidence, man. In high school, I didn't shoot the ball as much, and playing for him in the [NCAA] tournament, he was just telling me that for us to go far, I'm going to have to shoot a lot.
The Celtics and Pitino parted ways in 2001. He returned to the college game, and to the state of Kentucky, after being hired by Louisville.
Kuester: You say being at the right place at the right time, having good players in the NBA is always key. I'll tell you this, the experience he had in Boston probably wasn't what he expected, and yet he's a great coach. It just goes to show you that anything can happen in this crazy game of ours, but there's no question that Rick can be successful on either level.
Pitino wasted no time getting back into coaching, which didn't come as a surprise to those who knew him best.
Ralph Willard (longtime friend, assistant at Louisville): Rick loves to have the adrenaline flowing. Giving up coaching, there's very few opportunities to share that type of intensity and feeling. I think the idea of not having that on a daily basis frightens him a little bit.
He enjoyed the pro game, but obviously you have more influence on people in the college game than the pros, and I think he likes that.
Tom Jurich (Louisville athletic director): When I went to hire a coach in 2001, he was the only one on the list. I mean it with 100 percent sincerity. He was the perfect fit for us. He was a guy who could come in and clean up the program. It's hard for me to say it, but it was a program in bad shape from an NCAA standpoint, attendance, and we'd lost [at least 19] games in two of the last four seasons. We'd been guilty of our second major NCAA violation in three years, which made us eligible for the death penalty. The program was in really bad shape, which is why I was hesitant to take the job [in 1997]. But I thought it would give me a lot of opportunities to clean it up.
Farmer: There's a lot of people here in Kentucky that they look at Coach Pitino and say, 'I can't believe he left us and went to Louisville.' He didn't leave us to go to Louisville. He left to go to Boston and thought that he would retire probably from there. And also, when he went, he went for a lot of money and anybody else that had that opportunity -- and that was where he had the opportunity to coach the most storied franchise in NBA history. You can't blame him for that.
Donovan: I know there are people at Kentucky who are never, ever going to accept that he's coaching at Louisville. They're never going to accept it. In the big picture, that's kind of disappointing, because you've got two great coaches right here in the state. One guy that left an incredible legacy over an eight-year period and another guy that's doing a great job right now. To me, it's bigger than all of that. It's bigger than this rivalry. I told him that if he'd taken any other job after the Boston job, he'd be completely revered. But because he took the Louisville job, there was immediately some distaste. But Coach Pitino didn't grow up in Kentucky. He's from New York. In his world, it was an opportunity to coach another team in another conference. What's the big deal?
Willard: It's like the Yankees-Red Sox. OK, you're a Yankee fan. Why do you have to hate the Red Sox? The intensity of the venom makes no sense. I know he doesn't understand it at all.
2009-present: Lexington, Ky.
The intensity in the Commonwealth reached fever pitch when Kentucky announced the hiring of Calipari from Memphis in 2009.
Larry Brown: If God modeled a person to be the head coach at Kentucky, it would be John Calipari.
Farmer: I think it's the closest thing to Coach Pitino that Kentucky fans have seen since Coach Pitino left.
Joe B. Hall (former head coach at Kentucky): I've seen him use the [Kentucky] tradition to bring the team together, to forget their individual successes in the past and realize they can be a part of a great tradition and come together and take coaching and develop a team attitude built on being Kentucky players. Taking the high school or local AAU team names off their chest and putting one common name on their chest: Kentucky. And that that means something, and it's something to uphold and be proud of. That's not a difficult sell, but what Calipari does getting those superstars to listen, play defense and be a team member is remarkable.
I think Cal is more of an open person. Rick kind of holds within himself. Cal is very gregarious and very quick to accept a new friend and involve a lot of people in feeling they're a part of things. What he's done for me is one of the kindest acceptances of anybody I've been around. He's just been a great friend, and I appreciate him so much for inviting me to come to practices, to give me credit when it's not due and say nice things. It's just unbelievable. He's such a great coach in his own right, and to treat me with such respect is just amazing.
2012: New Orleans
Kentucky and Louisville will face off in the Final Four at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Donovan: Ever since I've been around Coach Pitino or John Calipari -- who I have a great relationship with -- it never comes up. Coach [Pitino] never talks about John, and John never talks about Coach. Whatever is going on, I've never really been aware of it or dragged into the middle of it. It's never been discussed with me.
Jurich: I think one of Rick's best attributes has been his ability to change with the times. He's been able to change with generations of kids. Just to watch how he handles each and every kid, whether it's Gorgui Dieng or someone else, he plays to everybody's strengths and also builds up their weaknesses.
I think the way he connects with kids is something I'm just so impressed with. I see what they think of him whether they win or lose. They love him. He's like the Pied Piper to them.
Huggins: I don't think [Pitino's] changed much. As we get older, hopefully we get a little smarter. We don't have to grind as much as we used to grind. We know so much more. We know so many more people. Rick always figured things out. He's been ahead of the game his whole career.
Mick Cronin (former Pitino assistant, current Cincinnati head coach): Put [Pitino] in the Hall of Fame right now. Any questions should be erased with this Final Four, with all due respect to the players. They're the only team in the Final Four that won't have a player drafted in June.
Donovan: I don't think there's a coach in the country that's done more with less. And believe me, I was on a team with a lot less.
I don't know how much longer he'll go. I would imagine after this happening [at Louisville], it probably at least puts him in a situation where, if he does want to walk away, he can walk away feeling pretty good about things.
Flint: [Calipari] has had an unbelievable career, successful career. He's won a lot of games. The only thing left to do is win a national championship. For him, it would be a nice little thing in his career, that's the only thing is his national championship. I've always told him he's going to be in the Hall of Fame, regardless. To have that on his résumé makes it even better.
Larry Brown: The kid is unique. I don't think [Calipari's] changed. To me, remember, when he was a young kid, he was the same way. You always knew that he felt like he could hang the moon, and that hasn't changed.
(ESPN.com's Brian Bennett, Nick Friedell, Andy Katz, Jason King, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin, Conor Nevins, Dana O'Neil Mark Schlabach and Gene Wojciechowski contributed reporting.)