A tale of two coaches

Saturday's Kentucky-Louisville game has been nearly thirty-three years in the making. When many Kentucky fans think of Rick Pitino and John Calipari they see the once and current coaches at Kentucky. What they don't see are two careers paths that have intersected and have intertwined since the two met at Howard Garfinkel's Five Star camp in 1977.

When John Calipari and Rick Pitino meet at mid court on Saturday it will be one of a number of such meetings the two have had over the last 18 years. The two first met on the collegiate court as adversaries in December 1991 when the Massachusetts Minutemen, then coached by Calipari, made a stop at Rupp Arena on the return trip from a tournament in Alaska. The teams would meet again that season, in the East Regional Semifinals. Kentucky won the game and set up what many consider to be the greatest NCAA tournament game of all time when Kentucky battled Duke for the right to go to the Final Four, a game that was ended by the shot.

The history between the two coaches goes back further than that season. In fact the two first met at Howard Garfinkel's Five Star Camp. Before the shoe wars took over the summer basketball scene Garf's Five Star Camp was king. It was at Garfinkel's camp that a young Rick Pitino, then a Syracuse assistant coach, met a high school kid named John Calipari from the Pittsburg area. The year was 1977.

Garfinkel saw many similarities in the two as he watched their evolution over the years, and once called Calipari, "the next Rick Pitino."

In 1988 Calipari began looking for his first job as head coach. Rick Pitino's alma mater UMass was looking for someone who could turn around ten seasons of losing basketball. UMass consulted Pitino, who at the time was the head coach of the New York Knicks, recommended Calipari, who was hired.

Calipari's UMass squad would face Pitino's Kentucky squad three more times after the ‘91-'92 season. In February 1994 Pitino's 7th ranked Wildcats slipped by Calipari's 11th ranked Minutemen, 67-64, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

In December 1995 the two teams would meet in the now defunct Great Eight in Auburn Hillls, Michigan. Calipari's 5th ranked squad had little depth, and Pitino's #1 ranked squad was loaded with future NBA players. Calipari broke the game up into four minute segments, each segment being the time between TV timeouts as well as halftime. Calipari coached his team well and convinced them to focus on winning each segment, which allowed them to not feel pressured by Kentucky's ability to throw a large number of players at them. When the final horn sounded Calipari's team had knocked off the Wildcats 92-82.

As fate would have it the two teams would meet again in the Final Four, as the teams held the top spot in the polls for the majority of the season. Calipari's squad held the top spot until their lone Atlantic 10 loss late in February moved the Wildcats back to the top spot. Kentucky's second loss of the season, to eventual Final Four participant Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament Finals vaulted Calipari's squad back to the top and dropped Kentucky to number two in the polls.

That's where the two teams stood when they met in East Rutherford, New Jersey in the top billed 1996 NCAA Tournaments National Semifinal game. #1 vs. #2. Pitino's team would knock Calipari's squad out of the tournament that day, but it was a hard fought affair that was undecided until the closing moments.

After the Final Four the New Jersey Nets called on Pitino, who accepted the position, then changed his mind. The Nets turned to their second choice, John Calipari, who accepted the job. Pitino would follow Calipari to the NBA the following season when he took over the reigns of the Boston Celtics. While in the NBA the two faced each other as divisional opponents.

Neither coach had a sustained run in the league and soon found themselves back in the college game. Calipari headed to Conference USA and the Memphis Tigers in 2000. Pitino followed Calipari to Conference USA to coach Louisville a season later. There they coached against each other annually until Louisville moved to the Big East.

Last spring in search of a replacement Kentucky turned to Calipari to coach the Wildcats.

On Saturday the duo will have come full circle. Calipari will be sitting on the home bench at Rupp Arena when Pitino brings in his Louisville Cardinals looking for an upset, just as Calipari brought his UMass team to Rupp 18 years ago looking to pull off an upset.

The two coaches are so similar in so many ways, they have often been compared in the media. Both have been loved and feared by the Kentucky fan base, depending on which bench the coach was standing near, as neither sits much during games.

The two career paths which are so intertwined and intersect far too many times for coincidence. From meager beginnings at Five Star more than 30 years ago these men have been destined for their teams to meet on the court this Saturday, each coaching a squad that is considered to be among college basketball's royalty.

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