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John Calipari and Rick Pitino: Twin Sons of Different Mothers?

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Real life is often stranger than make-believe, and there is an almost, "You couldn't make this stuff up" quality about John Calipari taking over the reigns at Kentucky.

Most people would say that Calipari walks into a much easier situation than Rick Pitino did when he took over a Kentucky program in ruins back in 1989, and that is no doubt so, but the parallel is still remarkable, even striking.  Consider the following list of similarities:

Both coached in New England for at least seven years

Pitino:   Head coaching stints at Boston University and at Providence with a couple of years as an NBA assistant in between.

Calipari:  Head coach at UMass for eight years.

Both did time in the NBA with a New York area team

Pitino:  Two years as an assistant and two as head coach for the New York Knicks.

Calipari:  Three years at the New Jersey Nets.

Both coaches had only modest success in the NBA

Pitino did lead New York to a division title, but struggled at Boston.

Calipari took the Nets to the playoffs in 1997-98, but was fired a year later.

Both men are of Italian decent

No explanation necessary.

Both men are outgoing, "salesman" kind of people

Pitino:  Famously engaging and outgoing, and most would argue that personality was the perfect fit for Kentucky basketball.

Calipari:  Known as perhaps the best recruiter and salesman of a program in all of college basketball.  Another perfect fit for Kentucky

Both men are innovators in basketball

Pitino:  At the time, very few teams were running the press constantly and shooting three point shots all the time.  When Pitino came to Kentucky, the three point line was relatively new.  Pitino has always played an up-tempo, offensive-oriented style.

Calipari:  Adopter and innovator of the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, plays an up-tempo, offensive-oriented style.

Both coaches have written several books

Pitino:  Has written or co-written a number of books, including Born to Coach, Full-Court Pressure:  A Year in Kentucky Basketball, Lead to Succeed:  10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life, Rebound Rules:  The Art of Success 2.0, and Success is a Choice:  Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life.

Calipari:  Has written or co-written a number of books, including Refuse to Lose, Basketball's Half-Court Offense, and Bounce Back:  Overcoming Setbacks to Succeed in Business and Life.

It is also noteworthy that both men have similar themes and subjects in their books.

Both came from the NBA to lead a storied program from a low point to great success

Rick Pitino came from the Knicks to take over probation-riddled Kentucky and famously led Kentucky to three final fours, a national championship, and two appearances in the national championship game.

John Calipari took over a moribund Memphis program and turned it into a national name, reaching the Sweet Sixteen or beyond in each of his last four years there, one Final Four, and narrowly lost a championship game to Kansas.

Both men have coached in both the SEC and Conference USA, and went from one to the other

Pitino went from Kentucky to a stint at Boston, and then to Conference USA as the Louisville coach before Louisville joined the Big East.

Calipari went straight from Memphis in Conference USA to Kentucky.

Both coaches took over Kentucky at low points

Pitino came to a Kentucky program on probation.

Calipari came to Kentucky after it missed the NCAA tournament for the first time while they were eligible for post-season competition since 1979.


In addition, the reception of both men into the Big Blue Nation has been similar.  Both have been celebrated as coaches who will return the program to its lofty status.  Rick Pitino succeeded spectacularly at Kentucky, and then went on to more modest, but still notable, success at Louisville.

Calipari achieved spectacular success at Memphis.  Can he out-do Pitino and achieve the same kind of remarkable success of his predecessor, or will the pattern repeat yet again?  Personally, I expect Calipari to substantially surpass Rick Pitino's achievements at Kentucky, primarily because he simply doesn't have nearly as high a hill to climb as Pitino did when he came here.

In summary, the careers of these two coaches could not be more similar, and although they are separated by about a decade in age, it looks like both of them will have almost identical careers, at least in general, by the time they retire.  It is also noteworthy to point out that Rick Pitino was in no small part responsible for helping Calipari get his coaching job at Massachusetts, which happens to be Rick Pitino's alma mater.  And now these two men lead two of the best programs in college basketball who also happen to be major rivals, as are the two coaches who lead them.

You couldn't make this stuff up.