SAN ANTONIO -- Because college basketball is a more fertile breeding ground for misperceptions and easy stereotypes than most sports, it might come as a mild surprise that Memphis' John Calipari and Kansas' Bill Self share a piece of their coaching background.
Calipari's first college coaching job was as a volunteer assistant at Kansas. So was Self's. They missed each other by a year - Calipari left in 1985, just when Self was arriving - and both paid their dues in unglamorous ways.
Calipari worked the training table: " 'Would you like peas or corn?' That's what I did," he recalled. Self arranged team bowling dates, down to reserving a specific lane: "If you know Coach [Larry] Brown, he's very superstitious," Self remembered about his then-boss, "because if you played well, you probably played well because you bowled on that lane. It had nothing to do with Danny [Manning]."
Both have expressed great admiration for the history of Kansas' program and for their mentors, mainly Brown, who remains close to both of them. Both clearly have forged the experience into their own coaching careers - as good a reason as any they're facing each other in tonight's national championship game at the Alamodome.
And despite the observations to the contrary, their teams are remarkably similar in their strengths and styles. It also goes against the general images of their teams that the Tigers and Jayhawks win with precise offensive systems, aggressive defenses, unshakable chemistry and uncommon poise. In other words, neither coach just rolls the ball out and lets the athletes go and be athletic.
On Saturday night, the slick, camera-friendly Calipari, with the loaded roster and pockmarked resume (thanks to NCAA violations with his previous Final Four team, Massachusetts), out-coached his more esteemed rival, Ben Howland, and his UCLA team known for its sound defense and throwback center, freshman Kevin Love. The Bruins, in the Final Four for the third straight year, cracked under the Tigers' defensive pressure, while Memphis, ridiculed all season for awful free-throw shooting, went 10-for-10 in the final three minutes.
In the second semifinal, Roy Williams' North Carolina team, the No. 1 overall tournament seed, had the deer-in-the-headlights look for the first 15 minutes. And when the Tar Heels woke up in time to cut the deficit to four points midway through the second half, the Jayhawks steered out of their skid, regained their composure and eventually broke the Heels for good. Kansas' players were as unfazed as their coach, Self, was and had been the week before when Davidson was one possession away from claiming a spot in San Antonio.
Self and Calipari are close friends who respect each other, even with their dissimilar personas.
"I am so happy for him and what he's been able to do in his career," Calipari said yesterday. "He's a good man, and he's a great coach. We probably recruit the same kind of kids and the same players."
He chuckled, then added, "I recruit more against Kansas than I recruit against anybody else."
Said Self of Calipari: "The one thing that can be lost, I think, a little bit, because he is flamboyant and he's a terrific recruiter, a salesman, [but] he can really coach. Anybody that's played for him knows he can really coach."
Both have climbed a steep hill to get to schools that can attract the kinds of players with whom they can truly win. Self worked miracles at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois. (He took the Jayhawks job two years before Bruce Weber reached the 2005 NCAA final with an Illini team that featured many players recruited by Self.) Calipari put UMass on the map back when its basketball legacy began and ended with Julius Erving in the early 1970s.
But at Kansas and Memphis, they've had the chance to recruit not just talent, but also kids who mesh well, who take coaching well and who not only don't mind submitting to a system, but also enjoy and excel in it - even while keeping an eye on the NBA.
The downside is that it creates an illusion of no structure to how both teams play, when in reality, it's quite the opposite.
"The way they run their offense is different than the way we run it," Self said. "But the philosophy's still the same - get the ball to the rim."
Self and Calipari have their teams doing that better than anyone else. More importantly, they're doing it later than anyone else. You have to do more than roll the balls out to manage that.
Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).