12/09/2009 10:49 AM ET
Calhoun and Calipari not fishing buddies
Despite mutual respect, no love lost between coaches
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Jim Calhoun is more worried about stopping freshman phenom John Wall than memories with John Calipari. (AP)

Don't expect Jim Calhoun and John Calipari to go out for drinks at Nick and Stef's Steakhouse adjacent to Madison Square Garden after their teams meet Wednesday night in the SEC/Big East Invitational.

The two men have a history that dates back to the late '80s and early '90s, when Calipari was a brash young coach at UMass trying to wrest supremacy of New England from the older, more established Calhoun at UConn.

"John came in from Moon Township in Pennsylvania and he said that UMass was the King of New England, that their program was King of New England," said Calhoun, whose No. 14 Huskies (6-1) face No. 4 Kentucky (8-0) in the second game of a doubleheader that also features St. John's and Georgia.

"He didn't even know what 'chowda' was with an 'a.' You've got to know what clam chowder is before you start saying that you're the king. Especially from a guy from South Boston, it's pretty tough for a guy to say that."

Calhoun, 67, is a Naismith Hall of Famer who has won two NCAA championships and more than 800 games, and Calipari, 50, owns more than 400 victories and is still seeking his first national title.

Both men have run afoul of the NCAA. Calipari has had Final Fours vacated at two different schools, UMass and Memphis. UConn is the subject of an ongoing NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations related to former player Nate Miles.

Yet a generation ago, Calhoun and Calipari battled over everything from recruits to the series between the two schools to how each handled the media.

"We had a healthy rivalry about domination," Calhoun said. "We were moving up to become one of the dominant teams and then the dominant team in New England and John was making a run at UMass to become the dominant in New England. Inevitably, we were going to clash. It just was. You're fighting for the same property and we did that."

Calipari coached at UMass from 1988-96, but UConn temporarily ended the longstanding series between the schools after the Huskies won the '89 and '90 matchups by 29 and 19 points.

"UConn had won a bunch in a row," said Jeff Calhoun, Jim's son. "It got to the place where it was not a series that benefitted UConn."

In 1995, after UMass became the first New England team to ascend to No. 1 in the nation -- a fact that Calipari proudly proclaimed at a Tuesday news conference -- he said the roles had reversed.

"UMass was the first No. 1 team and at that time I didn't want to play them," Calipari said. "Why give them a chance to beat us and be better than us? Unless we play in the NCAA Tournament we're not playing."

Still, the teams met in December 1996, with UConn winning again.

Calipari also scored a major recruiting coup by landing Hartford native Marcus Camby right out from under Calhoun's nose.

In 1996, Camby was named the Naismith National College Player of the Year and Calipari National Coach of the Year after leading UMass to its first appearance in the Final Four. Yet that appearance was later vacated by the NCAA because Camby was found to have accepted $28,000 from two sports agents.

After Calipari moved on to coach the Nets, Calhoun won the first of two national championships in 1999.

He won his second in 2004, at which point Calipari was back in the college ranks at Memphis. Calipari came close to winning his first national title with the Tigers in 2008, but Memphis failed to hold a lead and lost to Kansas in the title game.

Calipari and Memphis later vacated that Final Four appearance when it was discovered that someone else took the SAT for star freshman point guard Derrick Rose, now with the Chicago Bulls.

Calipari's current team revolves around yet another star freshman guard who has run afoul of the NCAA.

Freshman guard John Wall was forced to sit two games to start this season and repay nearly $800 in travel expenses because of his association with sports agent Brian Clifton, who also served as Wall's AAU coach.

Through his first seven college games, Wall's numbers compare favorably to those of Rose, the NBA Rookie of the Year last season.

Wall was averaging 18.1 points, 7.7 assists and 2.6 steals, and Rose averaged 15.9 points, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals.

"I think Wall is one of those quote 'special' players," Calhoun said. "We've seen it a couple years ago when John was coaching Memphis, we had the opportunity to see Derrick Rose, a great player. He was a great player before he committed, got better while he was at Memphis and now is becoming a great pro.

"Once in a while you're going to see those kinds of players."

Two years ago, in the latest showdown between Calhoun and Calipari, Memphis beat UConn in the final of the Coaches vs. Cancer championship.

Still, with so much water under the bridge, both coaches praised one another for their accomplishments.

Calhoun said Calipari "gets his teams to play exceptionally hard."

Said Calipari: "He's done a great job with that program."

Now the latest chapter in the rivalry will hit the Garden. Both teams will get an early test to see how good they can be.

But don't expect the relationship between the coaches to warm up anytime soon.

"I don't see them fishing together when they're older, but I don't think either guy spends their days thinking about the other," Jeff Calhoun said. "It's not that kind of relationship."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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