Commentary

Jim Calhoun, John Calipari renew rivalry

Originally Published: March 30, 2011
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

When UConn coach Jim Calhoun and Kentucky coach John Calipari meet in the Final Four, it will be the renewal of a heated rivalry.

There were two coaches Jim Calhoun wanted to beat more than any other: Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
AP Photo/Susan RaganHowie Dickenman, right, spent 10 seasons as Jim Calhoun's top assistant at UConn.

The reason, according to Calhoun's former longtime assistant Howie Dickenman, now the head coach at Central Connecticut State, wasn't because he disliked either one personally.

"He wanted to beat the up-and-coming hotshot guy," Dickenman said. "Rick was that at BU when Jim was at Northeastern. And John was the guy at UMass when Jim was at Connecticut. Jim hates to lose at anything. He's a tough guy. He's tough on himself, and that carries on to his team."

Calipari, who took UMass to the Final Four in 1996, three years before UConn did it, and had the Minutemen No. 1 in the country before the Huskies, was just as driven to rise above the Huskies in the 1990s.

"Cal was just coming on like gangbusters," said Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, Calipari's former assistant coach and his replacement at UMass when Calipari left to coach the New Jersey Nets after the '96 Final Four. "It was intense between those two to the point that they didn't speak. But honestly, those two guys are alike. That's why it was the way it was."

And now the two coaches have a chance to one-up each other on the largest stage they've ever faced off on -- Saturday in the Final Four at Houston's Reliant Stadium.

"This will be another game for Jim, but with a little extra," Dickenman said.

Neither was expected to be in the Final Four when the tournament started, let alone at the beginning of the new year. Kentucky never suited up what would have been its best frontcourt player in Enes Kanter, ruled ineligible by the NCAA, and the Wildcats struggled to finish games on the road in the SEC. Ultimately, the Wildcats won the SEC tournament and received a No. 4 seed to the NCAA tournament, but in the loaded East Region, where they had to topple top-seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16 and No. 2 North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

UConn had a star guard in Kemba Walker and a host of freshmen Calhoun had to mold. He did, notably Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier.

Walker led the Huskies to wins over Kentucky for the Maui Invitational title, at Texas and over Tennessee. But UConn stumbled in the Big East, finished with a 9-9 record and was forced to play on Tuesday at the Big East tournament. For the first time since the Big East instituted the format three years ago, a team (UConn) won five games in five days to win the title. UConn got a No. 3 NCAA seed out West, beating San Diego State and Arizona in Anaheim for a berth in Houston.

Calhoun is 3-2 versus Calipari, beating him twice at UMass in 1989 and '90 on each other's home court and losing to Calipari at Madison Square Garden in November 2007 when he was coaching Memphis. Calhoun has split with Kentucky under Calipari, losing to the Wildcats at Madison Square Garden last season, then beating Kentucky in Maui in November.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Camby
Getty ImagesMarcus Camby was at the center of a recruiting battle between UConn and UMass.

Before that game at MSG last season, Dana O'Neil's wrote a piece on ESPN.com that including the following quotes from both coaches:

Asked what his relationship is with Calipari, Calhoun didn't pause: "None. If I see him, I'll say, 'Hi John,' or 'How you doing John?' but that's about it."

Said Calipari of Calhoun: "He's a good coach. I don't hate him. He's a good coach. But I don't call him on his birthday and he doesn't call me on my birthday. We're cordial to each other."

In the UMass-UConn days, the perceived breaking point between the two schools -- and coaches -- occurred during the recruitment of Hartford-area center Marcus Camby in 1993.

"I was responsible for recruiting Marcus, and I did everything I possibly could," Dickenman said. "I tried and I tried, and the bottom line is I was talking to a wall. We weren't going to get him. We did have him on a visit with Kirk King and Ray Allen. We had this feeling that we weren't in it, and we never really were."

Camby went to UMass and led the Minutemen to a Final Four, which ultimately was vacated by the NCAA because of Camby's ties to an agent. But the Minutemen still hang the banner at the Mullins Center and Calipari was never named in the NCAA report.

"At the time, John was an up-and-comer, a hotshot name, and Jim doesn't like to lose to anyone," Dickenman said. "John has tremendous charisma, and he's a little brash. Jim had taken some things personal, but I don't think they were necessarily directed at Jim.

"[Former UConn assistant] Dave Leitao said it best, 'Jim Calhoun is not happy unless he's unhappy.' He has to be unhappy to be happy. And when he thinks there's something personal, it gives him something to feed off. I'm not sure he's not at his best when he's angry."

The race to get Camby apparently wasn't even really a chase. Flint said Camby was never going to go to UConn. UMass had it locked for a while, as Dickenman said. Flint said one of the only players the two neighboring state schools actually recruited against each other for was Kevin Freeman. Flint told Freeman, who was a part of the 1999 national champion Huskies team, to attend either UConn or UMass.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/Charles KrupaJohn Calipari spent eight seasons at UMass, winning five straight conference titles.

"I told him forget all these other coaches," Flint said. "You should play for Jim Calhoun or John Calipari."

Flint said there was an inferiority complex between UMass and UConn that permeated throughout the years the two coaches were there at the same time. You could argue that hasn't changed since Calipari left.

Connecticut no longer plays UMass, with the last game played in 2005. The series took a hiatus from 1990 to '96 and was set to resume with Calipari before he left for the New Jersey Nets, leaving Flint to coach against Calhoun. He lost every game. The only win for UMass in the series against Calhoun came under Steve Lappas at home in 2004.

"Cal respects him as a coach," Flint said of Calipari's relationship with Calhoun. "I don't think [the Huskies] liked that UMass went to the Final Four and was No. 1 before them. But they had some good teams and some great players, like Ray Allen and Donyell Marshall. It all calmed down, and we never beat them.

"I don't think it's a big deal anymore between the two of them," Flint said. "They've now played a few times the last few years. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's a stormy handshake at half court."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com