The parallels between Kentucky coaching legend Rick Pitino and soon-to-be Kentucky head coach John Calipari are there, giving “Big Blue” a feeling of d?j? vu.
For starters, Pitino played guard at UMass and Calipari coached the Minutemen to their first-ever Final Four appearance in 1996. Pitino bolted for the NBA to coach the Celtics following an NCAA Championship at Kentucky in 1996 and a national runner-up finish in 1997; Calipari left UMass the year before to coach the Nets.
Both coaches vacated their positions — with Pitino resigning and Calipari being fired — after less than impressive stints with their respective teams.
After limited success in the NBA, Pitino and Calipari each returned to the collegiate level in consecutive seasons and at rival programs — Louisville and Memphis, respectively — bringing each to a higher level of national prominence than what existed prior to their arrivals.
The two also are among only four coaches who have led more than one school to a Final Four appearance, with Pitino being the only one to lead three schools to the Final Four.
And of course, if Calipari takes the Kentucky job, both will have taken over the program amid low points in the storied history of the Wildcat basketball program.
Despite all their similarities, Pitino holds a significant 1-0 edge over Calipari in national championships with the 1996 title at Kentucky.
The only thing left for Calipari to do to draw comparisons to Pitino is to take the vacant position at the University of Kentucky. What better way to see how Calipari matches up with Pitino than to compare records at the same program?
And besides, it’s not like Pitino took the position in any better situation than Calipari would now. In fact, Pitino took the job at Kentucky amid a major scandal following recruiting violations by former head coach Eddie Sutton.
All Calipari has to deal with is a team that went 40-27 over the last two seasons and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Pitino’s first two years as head coach. And if he manages to retain junior guard Jodie Meeks for his senior season, Calipari’s job would become that much easier.
Still, if anyone can lead the Wildcats back to national prominence enjoyed before Pitino’s departure, it’s Calipari, who has reached the postseason every season since his first at UMass and has been to the NCAA Tournament 11 times in 17 years.
With more coaching wins through those 17 years than anyone besides Roy Williams, Calipari is a proven winner. Not only that, he also has proven his ability to recruit, bringing in players like Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose, Dajuan Wagner and Tyreke Evans to relatively small programs like UMass and Memphis.
With the name behind him, one can only imagine what players Calipari will be able to bring to Kentucky program, one players pick because they want the honor of wearing Kentucky on their chests.
If they’re anything like those he’s recruited in the past, the Kentucky Wildcats will be a national powerhouse once again in the SEC.
The only problem is, Kentucky really isn’t Kentucky right now.
Two rival programs — Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals and Calipari’s Memphis Tigers — have consistently brought in better talent and won more games over the past five seasons as the Wildcats’ prestige has slowly declined.
Some diehards would say no one but Adolph Rupp should ever coach the Wildcats, but Rupp passed away more than 30 years ago and hasn’t patrolled the sidelines for more than 35 years.
Others believe the Wildcats should pursue Pitino for a return to glory, but Pitino is having plenty of success at Louisville and isn’t coming back.
All the fans and boosters associated with the program need to cut Calipari the slack they were so unwilling to give Billy Gillispie in his time at the helm.
Sure, Gillispie failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth this year and prolonged the Wildcats’ streak to 11 straight seasons without a Final Four appearance after winning two of three national titles from 1996-98.
But at any other program — save Duke, UNC, Kansas and UCLA — two years is understood to be an inadequate amount of time in which to judge a coach.
Just look at Notre Dame’s football program with Charlie Weis at the helm. If any football program has the right to fire a coach after a few poor seasons, it’s the Fighting Irish and their storied history (see Ty Willingham). Yet, Weis remains Notre Dame’s head coach despite an abysmal 10-15 record over the last two seasons.
Kentucky fans must give Calipari a chance to establish himself as a coach over the course of at the very least three seasons before considering whether or not he fits the pedigree of a Kentucky coach.
Barring any unexpected turn of events, Calipari will take over as head coach of the Kentucky men’s basketball program. And when he does, I hope he gets the support he deserves from “Big Blue” and the Kentucky faithful.