Calhoun and Calipari renew rivalry

When John Calipari and Jim Calhoun were coaching at UMass and UConn, respectively, the two coaches competed for wins, players and attention. US Presswire/Icon SMI

He never tried to choke him.

For whatever simmering bad blood stewed between Jim Calhoun and John Calipari for all those years the two shared the same New England spotlight, Calhoun never went John Chaney on his rival.

So at least there’s that.

But anyone who thinks there will be anything more than a perfunctory pregame and postgame handshake between Calhoun and Calipari tonight is kidding themselves.

Kentucky and Connecticut, which square off around 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) in the SEC-Big East Invitational, don’t have much of a history. The only other meeting came in the 2006 NCAA tournament second round, an 87-83 UConn win.

The coaches? That’s another story.

Asked what his relationship is with the Kentucky coach, Calhoun didn’t pause: “None,’’ he said. “If I see him, I’ll say, ‘Hi John,’ or ‘How you doing John?’ but that’s about it.’’

Said Calipari to ESPN.com’s Andy Katz: “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.’’

Both coaches hastened to add that they respect one another. Calhoun went out of his way to laud Calipari for not just bringing in talent, but for developing it and coaxing it with a hard work ethic. Calipari, too, was quick to explain that Calhoun ranks as one of the many coaches he holds in high esteem.

But old rivalries die hard and back when Calipari was building UMass from scratch into the No. 1 team in the country, the two strong-willed men separated by a mere 75 miles butted heads for wins, players and attention.

Even as they speak now about those days, you can hear the thinly veiled digs coming through.

“John came in from Moon Township (Pa.) and said their program was king of New England and he didn’t know what ‘chowda’ was with an A,’’ Calhoun laughed. “You know what I’m saying? You’ve got to know what clam chowda is before you start saying that, especially to a guy from South Boston, it’s very tough to hear a guy say that.

“But we were moving up, becoming one of the dominant teams, becoming the dominant team in New England, and John was making a run at UMass to be the dominant team in New England. Inevitably we were going to clash. It just was. You’re fighting for the same property.’’

Whatever chance there might have been at resurrecting the relationship ended after the 1990 season. Calhoun elected to discontinue the series between UConn and UMass, a series that dated back to 1905. The decision didn’t sit well with Calipari. He publicly petitioned to restart the rivalry, noise that only served to agitate Calhoun more.

During a taping of Calipari’s television show one year, the host held up a T-shirt that read: “UMass Refused to Lose,’’ on the front and on the back was the state of Connecticut, captioned with: UScared. What’s Your Excuse for Not Playing This Year?”

Calipari insisted he knew nothing about the T-shirts at the time and was angry at the host for displaying them, but news naturally seeped back to Calhoun, who was less than pleased.

When Calipari filched star recruit Marcus Camby out of Hartford, that didn’t do much to help the cause either.

“I think eventually we would have started playing,’’ Calipari said. “Early on we started playing games and he didn’t want to play us because we were playing in that little building and I don’t blame him. Then when we got to be good, we were the first New England team to be No. 1 in the country… then I didn’t want to play them. Why give them a chance to beat us? And then they’re No. 1 and then it became, ‘Ah they hate each other.’’

The two went 17 years without crossing paths before meeting up in 2007, an 81-70 win for Calipari and Memphis. That game was played at Madison Square Garden, site of tonight's showdown.

Now both sit atop college basketball’s dog pile. They are no longer in each other’s backyards, but they will be in each other’s circles, recruiting for national players, vying for the same NCAA championship.

Perhaps tonight will be more than just a revisit to an old rivalry -- maybe it will be the birth of a new one.