Pitino hearing Calipari's footsteps

Before his 1992 University of Massachusetts team got set to play Kentucky in the Sweet 16, wunderkind coach John Calipari was asked about the comparisons being made between himself and Wildcats mentor Rick Pitino.

"He wears Gucci shoes," the 33-year-old Calipari said. "I wear itchy shoes."

Seventeen years later, Pitino can hear the footsteps. Stomping Tuesday afternoon into the place Pitino once dubbed "Camelot" was the guy some at UMass used to call "Little Ricky."

Suffice it to say, Calipari's arrival in Pitino's old office was not a popular move at Louisville. In fact, when the Kentucky job came open last week and the Calipari rumors began to sizzle, Pitino publicly promoted two other candidates, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford and Arkansas coach John Pelphrey.

On the surface, that advocacy was understandable. Ford and Pelphrey were former players for Pitino. Both have demonstrated some coaching success. Both have bluegrass in their blood. But they are also guys who would struggle -- even with all the resources and hoop heritage in Lexington -- to unseat Pitino as the king in Kentucky.

Calipari is a genuine threat to the crown. Uneasy lies the head of King Pitino.

Long ago, Pitino had been a staunch advocate of Calipari's coaching career. Back in 1988, when Calipari was an assistant at Pittsburgh, he began pursuing head-coaching jobs for the first time. First, he interviewed at the mighty University of Maine. Then he became one of the top candidates at a woebegone UMass program that had endured 10 straight losing seasons.

Pitino had some history at UMass. At age 17, he had gone to Madison Square Garden to watch the then-Redmen with sophomore Julius Erving play in the National Invitation Tournament against Marquette and Dean "The Dream" Meminger. Right on the floor of the Garden that night, bedazzled by the scene, Pitino signed his letter of intent to head to Amherst.

At UMass, he became renowned for his ample charms (he was the social chairman for Lambda Chi Alpha) and for his ferocious will (teammate and roommate Peter Trow once referred to him as "pathologically addicted to competition"). His time on the basketball court was mixed. Not long after he became eligible for varsity as a sophomore, he picked a fight with the incumbent starter at point guard, senior Mike Pagliara. Pagliara emerged with a broken thumb, and Pitino wound up getting booted off the team by coach Jack Leaman, who told the student newspaper, "He thought too much about himself, and not about the 11 other guys on the team." (Pitino would return to the team as a junior and senior as the starting point guard, and he would say years later that "Jack Leaman taught me how to be a man.")

When Pitino was an assistant coach at Syracuse, he met the teenage Calipari at the Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1977. Legendary camp director Howard Garfinkel prophetically dubbed Calipari "the next Pitino."

Pitino went on to work wonders as head coach at Boston University and Providence before taking what looked to be his dream job, head coach of the Knicks, in 1987-88. In the midst of that season, he graciously agreed to serve on the search committee for the UMass coaching vacancy. Between road games at Houston on a Thursday night and Boston on a Saturday, Pitino met with the committee in a conference room at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. "If we don't hire Calipari," Pitino said, "then we're afraid to win."

The committee agreed. Calipari was given a shiny new contract for $63,000. One perk was membership at the Hickory Ridge Country Club in Amherst -- paid for by Rick Pitino.

The son began to rise. In Calipari's second year, 1989-90, UMass posted a 17-14 record and made an NIT appearance. At the school's basketball banquet, Pitino, freshly back in the college game at Kentucky, returned to the UMass campus and said he thought the Minutemen had a legitimate shot to make the NCAA tournament the next year. "And when that happens, let me tell you, I'll be there with the maroon sweatshirt that says, 'UMass,' cheering for the team."

After an NIT Final Four appearance in 1990-91, the Minutemen finally broke through in 1992 to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 30 years. In the second round, the Minutemen posted their 30th win of the year with an overtime victory over Syracuse. That same day, Kentucky earned a hard-fought win over Iowa State. Cyclones coach Johnny Orr (who once coached at UMass) bitterly complained afterward about the antics of the Kentucky coach, who, he claimed, kept stepping out of the "coach's box." Pitino, then in his third year of resurrecting the once-great Wildcats, merely shrugged off the criticism.

In the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, Kentucky rolled to a 21-point lead, then UMass stormed back. With the score 70-68 and 5:47 remaining, Lenny Wirtz blew his whistle for a technical foul. Calipari's itchy shoes had strayed out of the coaching box.

The Minutemen lost their momentum and, with it, the game, falling 87-77. Kentucky went on to the regional final, losing to Duke and Christian Laettner, 104-103, in what many people regard as the greatest college basketball game ever played. (Meanwhile, Wirtz's name is still mud in Amherst.)

Two years later in 1994, Kentucky and UMass played a regular-season game at the Meadowlands. Calipari told the media how much he owed to Pitino. Pitino opined that Calipari's body of work at UMass constituted "the greatest building job in college basketball history." Kentucky won again.

The rivalry ratcheted up still further in the 1995-96 season. The Wildcats were the prohibitive preseason favorite to win the national title, with a roster that included 10 players who would play in the NBA one day. The Minutemen had just one, but that one, Marcus Camby, began what would prove to be a national player of the year season by scoring 32 points in a season-opening 92-82 shocker over Kentucky.

From a locker room stool in Auburn Hills, Mich., a stunned Pitino heaped credit on the Minutemen and vowed to improve. He said, "We are not a great team now. But we will be in March."

Calipari spoke to a Kentucky television station about Pitino: "Leave him alone. Let him coach his team. He's the best there is in the business. He will be there in March, and I will be rooting for him -- unless, of course, we're playing against them."

That was essentially the end of the nice-nice.

Kentucky and UMass, far and away the two best teams in the land that season, had a return engagement in the Final Four at the Meadowlands. The buildup was ferocious. The spinfest was dizzying. When Pitino declared that UMass had an advantage because of the chemistry born from its lack of depth (the Minutemen had gone essentially the entire season with just two scholarship guards, Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso), Calipari snorted, "This is Opposites Week for Rick Pitino. Whatever he tells you, it's the opposite."

As the week went on, the pressure began to build on Pitino. The raccoonlike darkness under his eyes deepened. His voice was hoarse, his glare steely. The New York Post headline on game day was "Pitino is Failure if 'Cats Lose." The Daily News went with "Rick's Gotta Have It."

And get it he did, as Kentucky got Travieso in early foul trouble, built a big lead and withstood a late charge to turn back the Minutemen 81-74. Two nights later, Kentucky defeated Syracuse for the national championship.

Thirteen years have passed since. Both coaches would get their comeuppances in the NBA, Calipari with the Nets and Pitino with the Celtics. It would be the one and only time either would fail.

But phoenixlike, they re-emerged as uber-coaches in the college game. At Memphis and Louisville, they rebuilt once-proud programs to towering heights. Along the way, they clashed with increasing rancor. In 2003, Pitino chafed at what he considered Calipari's attempt to manipulate officials, calling it "amateurish and unprofessional." He said, "When people start talking about the officials, you know they have some psychological problems."

When Louisville left Conference USA for the Big East (Pitino once again getting the bigger piece of the pie), Calipari railed against Pitino's unwillingness to continue a home-and-home series.

Both programs aimed for the sky. Calipari's Tigers missed the national title by a heartbeat a year ago. Pitino's Cardinals came into this year's tourney as the nation's top seed but fell short Sunday in the regional final against Michigan State. Neither of the intensely driven coaches made it to the Final Four.

Both are burning to get back there next year, but the in-state competition promises to be just as fierce. Pitino's role as hoop head of state in Kentucky is no longer quite as secure. Calipari is on board at Camelot with the biggest coaching contract in college basketball and his eyes on the game's biggest prize.

For Pitino, this must be like some recurring nightmare as Little Ricky keeps catching up, the footsteps from those itchy shoes getting louder and louder.

Marty Dobrow covers UMass athletics for The Boston Globe.