Calipari, Calhoun offer their take on rivalry

HOUSTON -- This week, former assistants of Jim Calhoun and John Calipari offered their opinions on a heated head-coaching rivalry that began in the early 1990s.

Once Connecticut and Kentucky got to Houston, it was Calhoun and Calipari’s turn to explain the relationship between the two coaching giants.

They coached against each other for the first time in 1989, Calipari’s first year at Massachusetts.

Calhoun and the Huskies beat UMass in consecutive seasons before the rivalry took a six-year hiatus because UConn chose not to continue the series. But that didn’t stop the competition. Calipari signed the best player from the state of Connecticut in Marcus Camby and led the Minutemen to something UConn hadn’t achieved yet -- a No. 1 ranking and a trip to the Final Four (1996).

“We were the first team to become No. 1 in New England,’’ Calipari told ESPN.com in Houston.

“I wasn’t coaching against Jim Calhoun,’’ Calipari added. “I was just doing my own little thing there, driving everybody crazy. We were fortunate to have good players. We were a top-25 team and then we got Marcus Camby and became a top-five team.’’

“John came in and didn’t know what clam chowder was and was taking over New England and couldn’t say 'park the car’ or 'Haavahd Yard,’’’ Calhoun told ESPN.com. “I look back on that as he was really good for basketball in New England.

“He had Marcus Camby and I had Ray [Allen], so we were big names -- 1 and 2 in the country at one point,’’ Calhoun said. “So we were fighting for the same turf in many, many ways.’’

But UConn was still in the Big East and UMass in the Atlantic 10, and since they didn’t play each other from 1991 to ’96, it was hard to grasp the rivalry.

“We were trying to aggravate each other, but the reality is that they did their thing and we did our thing,’’ Calipari said.

Calipari and Calhoun finally agreed to resume the series in 1997. A news conference was called. A chair was left vacant for Calipari, but instead he left UMass to coach the New Jersey Nets.

“I think if those guys were shooting marbles or pitching horseshoes, you’d see steam coming off both of them,’’ said former UMass athletic director Bob Marcum, who was in Kentucky’s locker room Friday, dressed in Wildcats garb. “They like to compete. I really believe it would have been one heated ballgame or series [had Calipari stayed].’’

Calhoun agrees.

“It was boiling, so it would have been special,’’ he said. “It would have rivaled a Kentucky-Louisville type of thing. I wouldn’t go to Carolina-Duke, but certainly a Kentucky-Louisville type of thing.’’

“It would have been great for New England basketball, a hard game because the guy can flat-out coach,’’ Calipari said. “His teams play hard, rough, fight -- take on his personality, gruff (Calipari then sounded out 'errr’). That’s how they play.’’

Calhoun and Calipari have now met in three of the past four seasons. Calipari beat UConn as head coach at Memphis and then at Kentucky before Calhoun beat him for the Maui tournament title in November.

But on Saturday at Reliant Stadium, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, with a berth in Monday’s national title game on the line.

The two old rivals wouldn’t want it any other way.