Wearing a custom suit with the slick tie and standing in front of the red-and-white team is Rick Pitino, who cuts the persona of a thrice-elected state senator with questionable ethics.
Wearing a custom suit with the slick hair and standing in front of the blue-and-white team is John Calipari, who cuts the persona of a brilliant salesman and more of a con than an artist.
No two individuals embody the darker perception of their sport any better than the coaches who were stomping and screaming a few feet apart Friday night in Indianapolis.
When you think of the state of NCAA men’s college basketball, and the perception that things are dirty, and the demand of anything other than winning is the priority, it is hard not to think of Louisville’s Pitino and Kentucky’s Calipari.
When people complain about the coaches getting rich while the players “get nothing,” at least in college basketball, it is nearly impossible not to put Pitino and Calipari at the top of this list.
They are both East Coast guys coaching for basketball-mad schools in a state that is one of the few remaining places that puts hoops before football. They coached in the NBA before returning to the security of the college game where they knew they could win and make a nice living.
Pitino made $4.9 million in 2013. Calipari made $5.2 million. Pitino owns race horses, including one that ran in the Kentucky Derby last year.
Theirs is an existence that is likely more myth than reality, but the cold truth is that if you want to win these guys can do it using only slightly different methods. Just don’t ask how they do it.
On Friday night in the Sweet 16, Kentucky’s game against Louisville felt like it deserved to be played in either the Final Four or the title game. Both teams are too good to play against each other this “early” in the tournament.
Their pasts aren’t all pretty and it’s just assumed that the NCAA offices keep a distrustful eye pointed from their perch in Indianapolis to the programs in Louisville and Lexington. But to those schools these two men are worth it.
They have won the past two NCAA national championships.
Calipari has become this era’s Jerry Tarkanian — taking the NCAA’s rules and pushing them to the limits. At both of his previous college stops — UMass and Memphis — he left each program to deal with NCAA sanctions committed during his regime.
Since arriving at Kentucky in April 2009, he has recruited two players who became the top pick of the NBA Draft — John Wall in 2010 and Anthony Davis in 2012. Twelve of Calipari’s recruits have been selected in the past four NBA Drafts. According to the latest draft rankings by CBSSportsline, seven of the top 68 prospects in the 2014 class are Calipari players.
The perception is that his “kids” only play the part of student-athlete.
“The rule is not my rule,” Calipari said this week of the NBA’s age limit that allows for players to enter the draft after one year of college. “I believe it should be a two-year rule. But it’s between the NBA and the Players’ Association. Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA.
“The rule is the way it is; I’m not punishing these kids. If they choose to leave even though they maybe shouldn’t leave, but they still choose to leave, I’m going to support them. It’s their decision, for them. It’s not about me or the about the University of Kentucky at that point.”
The separation in the perception of these two men is that while Calipari can recruit like no other, Pitino is a brilliant game coach who coaxes more out of less. Five of his players have been drafted since he arrived at Louisville in 2001 and you likely can’t name one of them.
He has been to two Final Fours with Louisville, with a title last season.
Neither Pitino nor Calipari are pristine, but they win so they will remain in demand.
“I don’t care about perception because perception is not reality,” Pitino said. “We’re friends. We respect each other’s programs very much and we’re friends in this business.”
As far as the business of college basketball, there are few better than these two.
How they do it may not always be pretty, but since winning is the priority the persona they cut does not matter as much as what they do.