When John Calipari first laid eyes on Rupp Arena as coach of the Massachusetts Minutemen, this must have been the dream that flashed before his eyes in the awe-inspiring moment of his first visit to Rupp Arena - as the man in charge of the Kentucky Wildcats, and King of the Bluegrass. That dream has come to pass.
Today in the New York Daily News, Dick Weiss, a long-time friend of A Sea of Blue and one of my favorite sportswriters ever writes a story that no Kentucky fan would have ever believed five years ago - the story that Pitino, once Head Wildcat, has not only been supplanted in that position, but even as the leading basketball coach in Kentucky:
He coached the ’Cats to one national title and three Final Fours from 1993 through 1996 and his 1996 title team had nine pros on the roster. But Pitino has never been able to duplciate the success he had at Kentucky and has found himself chasing the 52-year-old Calipari, who has coached the ’Cats to an Elite Eight and a Final Four. The assembly line is in place and it shouldn’t be long before Calipari starts hanging national championship banners at Rupp.
Pitino will watch from a distance as the program he helped rebuild from the ashes marches on.
This has to be a very difficult thing for Cardinal fans to face. When Pitino decided to come to Louisville to replace the aging and retiring Denny Crum, many Louisville fans thought that a third and maybe more NCAA Tournament titles could not be far away. After all, they reasoned, if Pitino could take Kentucky to the promised land, there was no reason that he couldn't do the same at Louisville, what they considered a superior program.
But the fact is that Louisville is not a superior program. That isn't a partisan statement of opinion, either, it is a simple objective fact.
Louisville is a very good, high-quality basketball program with a proud tradition and two NCAA titles that stand as testament to that fact. But no rational follower of the game would doubt that Florida, a program that also sports two national championships, is inferior to Kentucky as a basketball program. The same is true of Cincinnati, and North Carolina State, and Michigan State. All these programs have two NCAA Tournament titles, just like Louisville. None of them
are is the equal of Kentucky.
If nothing else, Calipari's domination of Pitino while the two have been the head of the in-state rivals demonstrates this reality beyond reasonable doubt. Both men are peerless recruiters. Both men have outstanding coaching résumés. Both men are at tradition-rich schools. Pitino even had the advantage of eight years at the helm of Louisville before Calipari even showed up at Kentucky.
But just like the 29-14 all-time record shows, this has rarely been a rivalry of near-equals. This rivalry is built more on local hostility and fan dislike than a highly competitive record, other than during Denny Crum's 30 seasons at Louisville. During Crum's reign, the Cardinals' NCAA tournament record was very competitive with Kentucky, including six Final Fours and two NCAA Tournament Titles, to set against Kentucky's seven Final Fours and Three NCAA Tournament titles during that same period.
But before Crum, there was no comparison. Since Pitino replaced Crum in 2002, Louisville is 4-7 against Kentucky. That's still competitive, but barely, and Calipari shows no signs of permitting Pitino to recapture the top billing in the Bluegrass he has enjoyed since 2002 when he took the Louisville job. If anything, it seems to be going the other way.
For the moment, at least, Calipari is undisputed, and unchallenged as King of the Bluegrass. He is 3-0 against his rival, and that doesn't look to turn around anytime soon given the fact that Coach Cal keeps lining up top recruiting classes year after year.
Everywhere but in the depths of urban Louisville, Calipari is King of the Bluegrass, and Rick Pitino is just maintaining his place as the best of the rest of the Kentucky schools, and even there, he is being challenged by teams like Murray St. this year and Morehead St. last year.
How times have changed.