Rivalry Of A Lifetime?

The history of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, and why their upcoming Final Four matchup could be the game of the tournament.

Joshua Caudillby Joshua Caudill

Its 1996. The ‘Macarena’ is the number one song on the radio, 'pogs' and 'bomber jackets' are cool, and John Calipari and Rick Pitino are facing one another in the NCAA Final Four.

Fast-forward to 2012, and with Kentucky’s win over Baylor on Sunday, the Wildcats move on to play in-state rival, Louisville–once again– in the NCAA Final Four.

This time around, there are familiar faces but different sidelines. The last time these two future Hall of Fame coaches met, itwas in the 1996 Final Four with Rick Pitino leading Kentucky over John Calipari’s Umass team, 71-64. Pitino and Kentucky went on to win the National Championship that year.

Calipari left that same year to coach the New Jersey Nets and Pitino took the Boston Celtics head coaching job a year later. Both flamed out and returned to the college ranks.

Pitino, a legend amongst the Kentucky faithful for years, did the unthinkable and accepted the offer of being Louisville’s new men’s head basketball coach after the legendary Denny Crum retired. Big Blue Nation was crushed. This was on par with Judas’ kiss, according to Kentucky fans.

Under Pitino, Kentucky’s program returned to the top of the mountain of college basketball after being put on probation under Eddie Sutton. Pitino lead them to three Final Fours, two National Championship game appearances, and a National Championship in 1996. After Pitino left, Kentucky won the title in 1998 with the players he left for Tubby Smith. But Kentucky could never duplicate the success that Pitino had in the 90s and Wildcats fans had to wait another 13 years to get back to the Final Four.

Cue John Calipari.

Calipari had success at second tier schools, Umass and Memphis, getting them to two Final Fours. At Memphis, Calipari had become a force to be reckoned with in the recruiting field. He was getting North Carolina and Kansas type talent at Memphis. Calipari was like the shortest guy in the gym trying to show everyone that he could lift just as much weight as the guys from the big schools.

In 2009, Calipari got his chance when Kentucky called after firing Billy Gillispie. The world of college basketball has never been the same. Calipari who is now in his third season at Kentucky, has brought in the No. 1 recruiting class every season he has been there. In that span, Calipari has lead Kentucky to one Elite Eight finish, the Final Four twice, and produced six NBA first round picks, with more players sure to be added to that list this summer.

If those quips were not compelling enough, let’s examine the similarities and the backgrounds of these two elite coaches. First, let it be known that they do not like each other.

That is fine. One would expect that to be the case for in-state rivals, right? No. This is more than that.

Calipari has always been called “Little Pitino” due to the similarities of the two. Legendary Kentucky play by play man, Cawood Ledford once wrote in his book "The most energetic one of the (UMass team) was the coach, John Calipari, whose clothes and sideline behavior were so much like Rick's that it was almost comical." Tony Delk, who played for Pitino during his college career and coached under Calipari at Kentucky had this to say about the rivalry of the two coaches, “It is so funny that they are so-called rivals and enemies, but they are two guys that think alike. They are two guys that are passionate and love the game of basketball and love to win. That lets you know they put in the time, and that’s why both coaches have been successful.”

The first time the two coaches met were at basketball camp in Pittsburgh where Calipari was one of the campers under Pitino. Pitino stated that he even recommended Calipari for the head coaching position at Pitino’s alma matter, Massachusetts in 1988. Calipari seemed to take offense to Pitino’s statement, shooting back in a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, "I would just tell you: I respect (Pitino), respect what he's done over his career." Then Calipari yells in a voice thick with sarcasm, "And thank him for all the help he's given me over my career!".

Pitino comes off like an originator wanting credit for creating the imitator (Calipari). In late 2011, the two coaches exchanged jabs after Calipari omitted Louisville’s program saying "There's no other state — none — as connected to their basketball program as this one," Calipari said. "Because those other states have other programs. Michigan has Michigan State. California, UCLA has all those … North Carolina has Duke. It's Kentucky, throughout this whole state, and that's what makes this unique." when speaking to reporters. Well, Pitino most certainly did not like that statement and rightfully so. He later fired back “"Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people," Pitino told CBSSports "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid." Then he added “If the shoe fits anyone, Wear it” Yeesh.

Usually, when one person hates another person it's because they see a reflection of themselves. The similarities of the two cannot be denied. Yes, both Pitino and Calipari, look like characters from The Godfather franchise, but its even deeper.

Both tried their hand at the NBA and failed before returning to the college ranks. In 2008, Pitino published his book, "Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0." Two years later, Calipari's book hit the shelves. Calipari’s book title? "Bounce Back: Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and in Life."

Last summer, Pitino agreed to coach the team from Puerto Rico. Calipari later agreed to coach the Dominican Republican national team. It feels like two politicians under-cutting each other at every turn. And if that were not enough, in the history of college basketball, only two coaches have lead three different teams to the NCAA Final Four. Those coaches? Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

Pitino has a winning record against Calipari. Pitino has never lost a rematch in the same season with Calipari, and is 3-0 versus Calipari in postseason play, including 2-0 in the NCAA Tournament. Those stats are a bit skewed though. All of those wins took place when Calipari was at Memphis and Umass taking on Pitino’s Kentucky and Louisville teams. Since Calipari took over in 2009, he is 3-0 against his Louisville foe.

Although both of these coaches are the faces of this intense rivalry; the supporting cast (the players) aren’t that bad either. Louisville’s Peyton Silva has the Cards peaking at the right time while Kentucky looks like an NBA team during this NCAA Tournament, being lead by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Terrance Jones. All of those names mentioned are possible NBA Lottery picks.

And how can we forget that these two teams played earlier in the season? Kentucky beat Louisville, 69-62.  It was an ugly display on that New Year’s Eve day, with both teams playing a foul fest and combining for 70 free throws. Louisville shot 32% to Kentucky’s 29.8%. Kentucky’s Michael Kidd Gilchrist and Louisville’s Russ Smith were the only bright spots of that day. Kidd-Gilchrist chimed in with 24 points and 19 rebounds while Louisville’s Smith poured in 30 points.

And probably the most intense rivalry hasn’t even been mentioned yet: the rivalry between the fans.

The Bluegrass State has always bled blue. That cannot be denied. Louisville’s fan base mostly rests in Louisville, but Kentucky is king throughout the rest of the state. All year long, both groups take jabs at each other to a point that isn’t even healthy for Red Sox and Yankees fans. Kentucky fans like to refer to Louisville as “Little Brother,” a belittling term meant to refer to Louisville as a  self-conscious and insecure little boy trying to get out of his big brother’s shadow. Also, pointing out the last time Louisville won a title was when The A-Team was the number one show on television (1986). However, Louisville fans make sure that Kentucky fans never go a day without jokes of Calipari’s two vacated Final Fours at Massachusetts  and Memphis, and often refer to Kentucky’s coach as “The Squid,” a juvenile attempt to point out the similarities of Calipari and calimari.

This Saturday will be the first time these two teams have met in the NCAA Final Four. Their previous NCAA tournament meeting took place in the 1984 regional final with Louisville defeating Kentucky in overtime. 

College basketball fans, take notice. This rivalry is legit and we are set to see it play out on college basketball’s biggest stage. Duke and North Carolina can’t say the same. Did you hear that, ESPN?

So put your brass knuckles on, put your mouth guard in, and try not to feel extremely uncomfortable seeing this rivalry intensify. At any minute, you’re just expecting everyone in the arena to tear each other’s hair out as if they were on an episode of Jersey Shore. 

John Calipari is seeking his first National Championship, which will stick it to the critics’ criticism that you can’t win with young players. Kentucky could win its 8th title in its glorious history and Pitino could do what no one else has ever done, and win the NCAA title with two different schools, giving Louisville some long awaited hardware. Regardless of how it plays out, the spectators are the real winners.

Editor's note: Correction–the previous post-season meeting between the two schools was the 1984 regional semi-final, not the '84 regional final. Kentucky won that game 72-67.