When Kentucky plays UConn on Saturday in the Final Four it will bring up one more time the rivalry between UK coach John Calipari and UConn coach Jim Calhoun. The two played last season in the SEC/Big East Challenge in New York. They played this year in the finals of the Maui Invitational. Kentucky won last season. UConn won this season.
Here’s my column on the Calipari-Calhoun non-relationship that I wrote before last season’s game:
No love lost between Calipari, Calhoun
By John Clay / Herald-Leader Sports Columnist
They have no relationship.
“None,” said Jim Calhoun. “I don’t have a relationship with John (Calipari).”
A relationship, no.
A history, yes.
When Kentucky plays Connecticut on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, it’s not only the showcase of the SEC/Big East Invitational, it also marks the renewal of a heated rivalry – Coach Cal vs. Coach Cal – that stretches back 20 years to the rocky coast of old New England.
Jim Calhoun was the coach at Connecticut.
John Calipari was the coach at Massachusetts.
“You’re fighting really for the same property,” Calhoun said.
It was some fight all right, so heated that even though Calhoun has won two national titles and been inducted into the Hall of Fame since Calipari departed – first for the NBA, then Memphis, now UK – the two are still not what you would call buddies.
“John came here from Moon Township in Pennsylvania and said that UMass was the king of New England,” said Calhoun during a teleconference Tuesday. “He didn’t know what ‘chowda’ was, with an A. You got to know what ‘chowda’ is before you start saying (you’re the king). Especially for a guy from South Boston, it’s pretty tough to (hear) that.
“But you know, we had a healthy rivalry about domination. We were moving up to become one of the dominant teams, and the dominant team in New England, and John was making a run at UMass to become the dominant team in New England.
“Inevitably, we were going to clash.”
On the floor, Calhoun and Calipari clashed twice. Connecticut won both, 104-75 in 1989-90, and 94-75 in 1990-91.
“The first time we played them was in their old building that had bleacher seats,” Calipari said Tuesday. “It was 11-0, and I had to call time out. I called my team in – and I can still remember because the players from that team joke about it – and said, ‘Guys we’ve got one goal in this game. Get it across half-court.’ It was 11-0, and we had not crossed half-court.”
After the second game, Calhoun canceled the series. Word was, he didn’t care for Calipari’s sideline antics, his brash behavior, and the way he used the media to lobby for the series to be renewed
Others said Calhoun didn’t like the competition. He knew Calipari was going to win. And, sure enough, Calipari went into Calhoun’s backyard of Hartford and signed a player named Marcus Camby.
“We were the first New England team to be No. 1 in the country,” Calipari said Tuesday. “And at that point, I didn’t want to play them. Why give them a chance to beat us and say they’re better than us?”
Eighteen years passed before the two would coach against each other again. That was also at Madison Square Garden, on Nov. 16, 2007. Calipari was at Memphis, with a point guard named Derrick Rose. Memphis won 81-70.
But time hasn’t healed those old wounds. Though Calhoun says they give each other a “Hi, how are you doing” when their paths cross, the coaches are not close.
“But that has nothing to do with anything,” Calhoun said Tuesday. “He’s won, exceptionally well. He has very good players. I love how hard his team plays. I love the way he puts his team in position to win.”
Calipari uses “a terrific coach” to describe Calhoun.
“He gets his teams to play with toughness,” the UK coach said. “He lets them play, though. It’s not like he’s calling every play down the court. He gives them space, and he lets them play. Great shot-blocking team.
Great rebounding team, for years. It’s that sustained level of what they’ve done.”
Said Calhoun, “I think the nature of it is, when you have a rivalry, then you have a guy who’s real good, who’s been winning. And we’ve been winning. So the other guy, he must be real good.”