Rivals? Not on the bench

Originally Published: February 2, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Former New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy played the role of the villian perfectly. Sure, the rest of the nation may not have been able to pick him out of a lineup, but the New Mexico fans who filled the Pit in the 1980s loved to hate public enemy No. 1.

They could smell him coming, his clove cigarette signaling his entrance into New Mexico's home court. McCarthy would walk tall down the tunnel into the Pit, ignoring the "No Smoking" signs along the way to the bench. And, on the occasion when his Aggies beat the Lobos, he welcomed a trip off the court on his players' shoulders -- pointing at the crowd as he rubbed a loss to their biggest rival in their face.

"His walk pissed people off," said former Clemson coach Larry Shyatt, a former assistant at New Mexico under Gary Colson in the mid to late 1980s. "He had that swagger."

Without McCarthy, the New Mexico-New Mexico State rivalry pales in comparison to those games between the teams in the late 1980s to early '90s. Then again, while today's best rivalries across the country remain as rich as ever, few are fueled by the men on the benches.

Remember when former Illinois coach Lou Henson called then-Indiana coach Bob Knight a "classic bully?" Or when John Chaney threatened to "kill" John Calipari in a postgame interview room. Those were the days, huh? Well, that kind of verbal jousting just doesn't happen anymore.

Sure, fans love to get on opposing coaches. But the rivalry between the coaches, the mano e mano between X's and O's, just doesn't have nearly the same intensity.

Why?

"If a coach today says or does something, the media eats it up," said Indiana coach Mike Davis, who doesn't seem to be on any opposing team's hate list when he arrives in a hostile arena. "That's why you're not going to see that stuff today."

It seems everyone is tamer these days. Just look at the coaches involved in Rivalry Week.

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim were once intense rivals, but these days are extremely close friends. Both coaches went through similar medical scares the past two seasons, and it was Boeheim who helped Calhoun last season get through his ordeal after Boeheim underwent prostate surgery during the 2001-02 season. Monday night, when the Big East rivals meet, the coaches will simply shake hands, exchange a few kind words and go about the business of coaching.

Tuesday night, when Cincinnati and Xavier square off in the annual Crosstown Shootout, fans filling the Cintas Center will certainly have a word or two for Bob Huggins. The two schools genuinely don't like each other. But there isn't too much to the Huggins-Thad Matta rivalry. Huggins had a bit more of one when Pete Gillen was the coach at Xavier.

Last Saturday, Huggins' good friend, Charlottte's Bobby Lutz beat him in Cincinnati. When Cincinnati returns the game in Charlotte, Huggins becomes the villain in Charlotte, but it's not really for anything he does on the sideline or says.

"Our fans love to hate him, I'm not going to lie to you, they do," Lutz said. "But we play golf together all of the time. He's a great friend to us and I have unbelievable respect for what he has done and accomplished at Cincinnati."

Yikes. That's almost too much.

Where's the passion. The disdain?

Coaches seem to save the back-stabbing and harsh words for the recruiting trail. It's during the spring where the intense battles are fought among coaches. But it doesn't ever seem to translate onto the court these days.

"Everyone has great relationships off the court," Rutgers coach Gary Waters said. "Everyone who is in Nike goes on the Nike trips or (those in adidas go on) the adidas trips. So many more coaches are friends now."

Not everyone, but it is a different era.

It has become a peaceful time. Isn't that what the coaches ethical summit was about in October? Isn't everyone supposed to get along? Sure, there have been recruiting comments that were made at times that irked coaches like Missouri's Quin Snyder and Florida's Billy Donovan. Both claim they have been unfairly sullied by their colleagues without any proof of wrong doing.

But that never seems to carry over to the court.

They may not exactly attend a love-in with their fellow coaches, but they aren't squawking at each other during the game or even after.

Even a nice little tit-for-tat in Texas didn't materialize into much this season. Knight and Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson wound up shaking hands prior to their game this season in Lubbock. A year ago, Knight wanted Sampson to forfeit the game in which the clock did not start on time in the final seconds of the Sooners' victory over Texas Tech.

During this past offseason, Sampson made it clear he was offended by the gesture. Apparently, he wasn't too offended.

There is always the isolated incident, however, to stir things up. Take last season, for example, when former North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty got into a verbal joust with Duke assistant Chris Collins. Tensions are always high when these Tobacco Road rivals clash, and when pushing led to shoving on the court, a pair of former players let emotions take control for a few seconds. In the heat of the moment, an exchange of glares and words certainly spiced things up.

But, really, does anyone expect anything close to this happening again Thursday night when Roy Williams gets his first taste of the Duke-UNC rivalry in 16 years? Not hardly. Williams never hesitates to challenge a coach who he sees as committing a recruiting violation, but the only challenges he'll hand out in Chapel Hill will be to his players.

If there was one coach who wasn't afraid to mix it up at times it was Shyatt.

"I had one with (Rick) Majerus when I was at Wyoming," Shyatt said of some words that were exchanged in the heat of a game against Utah. "I had one with (Eddie) Fogler (when Fogler was coaching South Carolina and Shyatt was at Clemson). And I had one with Matt (Clemson vs. North Carolina). They were all spur of the moment.

"The media attention on these things keeps the rivalries and the jealousy suppressed. Once the cameras are out, everyone is more reserved. You can't afford to do something. Everything is taped on video and audio."

The video tape was rolling when Chaney and Calipari had their famous run-in after a game in Amherst. Chaney charged Calipari while he was at the podium conducting an interview. Chaney never got close enough to do more than shout his intentions at Calipari, but he certainly tried to get his hands on Calipari.

Today? The two are fast friends. So close, in fact, that it was Chaney who was the first to play Calipari when he arrived at Memphis.

"Part of the problem is that all these new coaches move around so much that they don't get a chance to develop those kind of rivalries, the kind of coaching rivalries we saw in the Big East and in the Big Ten," Shyatt said. "Now if something happened, it would be so publicized, and everyone would remember it, that it would be a big deal."

So, as another Rivalry Week begins, we'll just have to settle for the excitement of a courtside seat at Syracuse-Connecticut, Kentucky-Florida, Duke-North Carolina and Arizona-Stanford. Which ain't all bad.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Click here to send Andy a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com