The sniping between Kentucky’s John Calipari and Louisville’s Rick Pitino has been put on hold this week, much to the disappointment of the fan bases of their respective teams and the media assembled for the Final Four in New Orleans.
It picked up in October, when Calipari talked about Kentucky’s stature in college basketball.
“It’s a unique thing,” Calipari said at the time. “There’s no other state, none, that’s as connected to their basketball program as this one. Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It’s Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that’s what makes us unique.”
Pitino, who coached at Kentucky from 1989 through 1997, was quick to respond.
“Four things I’ve learned in my 59 years about people,” Pitino said. “I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone. Wear it.”
In retrospect, it’s pretty mild compared to what went on a generation ago between two of their predecessors. Early in the 1986-87 season, Wildcats coach Eddie Sutton made a comment to reporters in the Bluegrass State that “Kentucky is like the big brother and Louisville is like the little brother”.
It didn’t matter to Sutton that little brother Louisville was coming off winning its second national championship in seven years or that it had been nearly a decade since Kentucky – under Joe Hall, not Sutton – had last won its national title.
Louisville coach Denny Crum, a disciple of UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, had stayed mostly silent about Sutton’s declaration. When the Wildcats handed the Cardinals a 34-point loss in December, that seemed to reinforce was “Fast Eddie” was saying.
The story seemed to fade.
Then I showed up in Lexington and all hell broke loose.
It was early January and I was in town to do a story for The Sun about the culture of Kentucky basketball because Navy All-America David Robinson and the Midshipmen were going to be playing at Rupp Arena.
The day after I arrived, Kentucky got blown out by LSU in a game that for years was referred to as “Black Sunday”.
Sutton, who was crotchety on a good day, was not much for talking when I showed up in his office the next afternoon. I asked him about the “Big Brother-Little Brother” comment and instead of backing off, he compared Kentucky basketball to the New York Yankees and Louisville, to, well, everyone else.
So I called Crum.
When I asked him about Sutton’s remark, Crum said, “Eddie must’ve been drunk when he made that statement.”
I quickly asked my next question, figuring that Crum would have thought about it for a moment and then tell me, as many coaches and athletes had, that his previous statement was off the record and he would appreciate it if it didn’t appear in The Baltimore Sun.
But the interview continued without Crum ever mentioning it again.
When the story appeared the following week – with Crum’s comment about Sutton – I must have heard from a dozen radio stations across the state. This was long before the Internet, so it was pretty remarkable for the news to travel that fast.
That afternoon, Louisville sports information director Kenny Klein went into Crum’s office and showed him a copy of the story, which had run in a few papers across the state. Klein asked Crum if he had made the comment about Sutton. He looked at the story, with the quote circled.
“I guess I did,” he said.
There were no apologies offered to Sutton, and no denials by Crum. Most coaches would have said that their comments were taken out of context. I always appreciated Crum’s honesty on all accounts. But it also spoke to the enmity between the two men and their programs.
Calipari and Pitino?
They’re certainly heavyweights in the college basketball coaching fraternity, but when it comes to public feuding, they have nothing on Sutton and Crum.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun