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The Kentucky-Louisville basketball dispute fits a well-worn pattern

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 10/18/2020 By Jerry Tipton, Lexington Herald-Leader

The recent back-and-forth between Kentucky and Louisville about when and where their game will be played this coming season fits a familiar pattern. During his career, John Calipari has repeatedly competed off the court with coaching colleagues.

A Google search and follow-up interviews showed that Louisville’s Chris Mack is at least the seventh coach who has found himself in a competitive standoff with Calipari.

“It’s mostly just John’s personality,” said CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, who covered Calipari’s Memphis teams. “He constantly works on ways to put his program in the best position possible. And sometimes that comes at the expense of other programs.”

Parrish recalled how Memphis and Gonzaga played a non-conference series. Both held sway in their non-Power Five conferences, but needed the game to boost their national profiles. This mutual interest did not prevent haggling about the terms of the contract.

Gonzaga Coach Mark Few assumed home-and-home meant games in each team’s home arena, Parrish said. But Calipari insisted that the games be played in downtown arenas in Memphis and Spokane.

Never mind that Memphis played its home games in a downtown arena. Calipari insisted that a return game could not be played in Gonzaga’s on-campus arena, Parrish said.

Ultimately, Few relented.

“He wants to win every negotiation,” Parrish said of Calipari. “All of this is what makes him John Calipari. It is what has made him one of the biggest forces in the history of college basketball. It has over the years driven some other coaches crazy. But it is part of why he has been as successful as he’s been.”

In 2010, Calipari made Bleacher Report’s list of the top 25 “Fiercest Coaching Feuds” three times:

? With Bobby Knight at No. 23. Knight publicly questioned Calipari’s integrity, saying, “We’ve got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he’s still coaching. I really don’t understand that.”

? With Rick Pitino at No. 21. Pitino initially endorsed his alma mater (UMass) hiring Calipari, saying, “If we don’t hire Calipari, then we’re afraid to win.” The friendliness cooled as they competed.

Calipari’s repeated complaints about officiating led Pitino to say, “when people start talking about officials, you know they have some psychological problems.”

Parrish recalled Calipari going on a Conference USA teleconference before his Memphis team played at Pitino-coached Louisville. Calipari suggested the “Final Four crew” of referees working the game ensured that U of L would not get away with fouling continually, thus giving Memphis a chance to win.

Parrish recalled Pitino saying after the game something like, “you just pull that ring on John’s back and he starts talking (about officiating).”

? With John Chaney. That was at No. 8. Bleacher Report’s Ross Coleman summed it up succinctly by writing, “I think the video speaks for itself.” (Chaney famously came into a postgame news conference and threatened to kill Calipari.)

Surprisingly, the list did not include Jim Calhoun, who bristled at what he saw as Calipari’s attempt to encroach on UConn’s preeminence in New England in the 1990s. He referred to Calipari as “Johnny Clam Chowder” for what he saw as faking a Boston accent while UMass coach.

Another notable back-and-forth is between Calipari and Bruce Pearl. Like the current UK-U of L squabble, that began as an in-state affair: Calipari at Memphis and Pearl at Tennessee.

“I don’t want to say they hated each other, but they clearly aggravated each other,” Parrish said. “And they aggravated each other because they were the same guys … saying things just to get under the other person’s skin (and) promoting in a way that the other coaches maybe wouldn’t promote.

“John had always been the biggest personality wherever he was. And suddenly, here comes Bruce Pearl trying to recruit Memphis with a massive personality.”

This feud reached its zenith in 2007-08 when Tennessee played at Memphis in a game featuring the nation’s top two ranked teams. Speaking of turf battles, Ron Higgins, the editor of Tiger Rag Magazine and, recalled Pearl orchestrating a Tennessee pep rally on Beale Street before the game.

Of course, there are coaching tensions presumably fueled by competitive zeal that don’t involve Calipari.

Higgins recalled a 2018 NIT game featuring Louisiana-Lafayette at LSU. In the week leading up to the game, Louisiana-Lafayette Coach Bob Marlin repeatedly said it should have been played at his team’s home court. He emphasized that point by referring to LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center as a “gym.”

With LSU safely ahead in the final seconds, LSU Coach Will Wade called timeout. “Marlin was looking over at him,” Higgins said. “I think Will said something like, how do you like our gym now?”

Tim Welsh, a former coach turned ESPN analyst, said Calhoun and Pitino were coaching neighbors in Boston, Calhoun at Northeastern and Pitino at Boston U. They were not neighborly.

“We’d jog along the Charles River every morning,” Welsh recalled Calhoun saying. “We’d jog right by each other and wouldn’t look at each other.”

As for this season’s Kentucky-Louisville game, the rivals originally had agreed on Dec. 6 as the date for the game, Mack said in the video he tweeted.

When that date proved unworkable, “Chris assumed that, OK, they’ll work with us on this …,” Parrish said. “The thing you have to learn about John is that he will work with you only if it doesn’t hurt him. As long as his interest and your interest align, then that’s fine.

“But he will not sacrifice any advantage to help you in any way. I’ve never seen him do it.”

On a teleconference Wednesday, Mack alluded to the game being played on the date UK preferred: Dec. 26.

Of Calipari and Mack, Parrish said, “I promise you when they meet pregame, seconds before tip-off, at the Yum Center, they will shake hands and hug each other and smile and laugh. I’ve seen that scene a million times with John.

“But was Chris genuinely bothered by how all this went down? Frustrated? Yes. I can tell you that matter-of-factly.”

Reading as comfort

Last week’s note about the 2019 book on former UK Coach Joe B. Hall co-authored by Marianne Walker (“Coach Hall: My Life On and Off the Court”) prompted a thought: With more free time a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic, are people reading more?

Dr. Jeff Rice, the chair of UK’s Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies department, said he has spoken to students about that.

“One job that still seems to be there in a pandemic is writing because everybody’s reading …,” he said. “If you can’t go anywhere all the time, you’re often reading about what’s going on in the world right now.”

Reading can serve several purposes, Rice said. “To be entertained. To become knowledgeable. To confirm our beliefs.”

Then Rice added, “Not often to counter our beliefs.”

Rice said he likes memoirs, which describes the Hall/Walker book.

The UK professor likened reading in the pandemic to a favorite snack or meal.

“Just like people order food because they’re looking for comfort, you feel you’ve got to find comfort somewhere,” he said.

‘Escape valve’

Lexington attorney and one-time candidate for governor Terry McBrayer died last weekend at age 83. He was a longtime friend of former UK coach Joe B. Hall.

In a 2017 interview, McBrayer talked about this friendship.

“My friendship with Joe is unique in that it didn’t really involve basketball,” he said. “I’m not an athlete, never professed to be an athlete. I was a debater. He and I connected early on through the environment and outdoors. He and I were raised similarly. We had humble upbringings. We had dogs when we were kids. …

“He had plenty of basketball friends. I was kind of a relief valve to him. We didn’t talk about basketball.”

(Don’t take that literally, Hall said with a chuckle last weekend. Basketball came up on occasion.)

“I looked at him as my big brother (and) always have,” McBrayer said of Hall. “I think he looks at me as his younger brother. I was always the guy who met him after games when he was doing the after-the-game (radio) show. Win or lose. Particularly when he lost. … You’ve got to have some kind of escape valve, and I thought I kind of became Joe’s escape valve.”

Happy birthday

To Todd Ziegler. He turned 55 on Friday. … To Tony Cooper. He turned 49 on Saturday. … To Kyle Wiltjer. He turns 28 on Tuesday. … To former UK football coach Bill Curry. He turns 78 on Wednesday.


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