Calipari vs Pitino fuels Final Four drama

Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Baylor...

Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Baylor Bears during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional Final. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/AFP)

Ryan Wolstat, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:33 PM ET

Think the Final Four is all about the players? Think again.

At this time of year, in the days leading up to the big games, it is the coaches who seem to come to the forefront as much as their charges. Witness Butler’s Brad Stevens, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Duke’s Coach K, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Kentucky’s John Calipari of late.

This year, with Calipari opposing long-time friend turned mere acquaintance Rick Pitino and Kansas’ Bill Self matching wits with Ohio State’s Thad Matta, the attention paid to the bench bosses is already being amped up even higher.

With good reason. Calipari is the biggest coaching name in college hoops and its second-best compensated — behind only Louisville’s Pitino — while Self and Matta rank fifth and sixth on that list. They each make at least $2.5 million U.S. and that’s before a myriad of bonuses bumps the number up significantly.

Pitino and Self have each won an NCAA championship (and Tubby Smith won another at Kentucky with players Pitino recruited) and the quartet has made an astounding 14 Final Four appearances (though two of Calipari’s trips were later vacated).

Calipari is regarded as the world’s premier recruiter and though his star players seldom stay more than a year with Big Blue, he is a master at getting athletes who have always been one man shows to play together and get deep into the tournament. All that is missing — and it should come this year, unless Pitino has something to say about it, is a first championship.

They have known each other for more than 30 years — in fact, Pitino went to bat for Calipari to get him his first head coaching job at the University of Massachusetts back in 1988 and they met at the Final Four in 1996 when Calipari’s Marcus Camby-led UMASS squad fell to Pitino’s eventual champs.

But the relationship soured at some point and now, 16 years later, after both tried and failed to cut it as NBA head coaches (Pitino after previously finding success as head coach of the New York Knicks) they are back where they belong and Calipari has a chance to exorcise some demons.

Pitino’s actual disciple — Florida’s Billy Donovan — was taken out in the Elite Eight and still has never beaten the 59-year-old living legend.

But they remain close pals.

That isn’t the case with these two, though they don’t hate each other or anything — not like Kentucky and Louisville fans who will need to be separated before, during and after Saturday’s big game.

Meanwhile, Matta continues his mission of transforming a football powerhouse into a basketball standout as well. He got OSU to the title game in 2006-07 with (a healthy) Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. leading the way, helmed the NCAA’s top regular season team a year ago and got them even deeper this year with less talent.

Sure he has Jared Sullinger, but few expected Matta’s team to still be standing at this point. He’s done a heck of a job with them.

Ditto Self and Kansas, who came into the season with far lower expectations than they were used to.

A program that consistently has posted obscene records under Self (including 35-3 in 2010-11) but has too often bowed out embarrassingly early in the tournament (like first or second round early) flipped the script this time around, reaching the heights better Jayhawks squads were supposed to attain.

This coaching field is as impressive as any we have seen at the Final Four and the participants are coaching as well as they ever have before.

But their biggest challenges of the year are just days away.

ryan.wolstat@sunmedia.ca

 


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