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History shows it doesn't take much to fuel a Calipari-Pitino fire

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'I think it's more John than Rick,' one coach says of the Pitino-Calipari feud. (US Presswire)  
'I think it's more John than Rick,' one coach says of the Pitino-Calipari feud. (US Presswire)  

NEW ORLEANS -- It was February 2005 and Memphis was 13-10 and coming off a double-digit loss to Houston. The team's most talented player (Sean Banks) had flunked out of school mid-semester. Another starter (Jeremy Hunt) had recently been arrested on a domestic violence charge. But John Calipari didn't use his weekly spot on the C-USA teleconference to discuss either of those things. He instead indirectly lobbied the officials for an upcoming game at Louisville.

"It will get rough sometimes and they're going to have their crowd going and you've got to block all that out and just play between the lines," Calipari said before later suggesting he wasn't concerned with the Cardinals' "rough-house" style because he knew a "Final Four" officiating crew would be working the game, and such a great group of officials would never, under any circumstances, let Louisville touch and grab and hold his Tigers.

Rick Pitino was not amused.

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"It's a very consistent thing -- you just pull that little cord and the same things come out," Pitino said about Calipari's pregame remarks. "I've been around a long time. It's the same comments. I don't put any fuel on any fires."

And then came tipoff.

Whistle.

Whistle.

Whistle.

Louisville's Larry O'Bannon and Otis George both had two fouls within the first 10 minutes, Memphis jumped to a 12-point halftime lead and cruised to an 85-68 victory at Freedom Hall over a team that was ranked ninth nationally, on a nine-game winning streak and beating opponents by an average of 23 points per contest. The Cardinals were whistled for 29 fouls in 40 minutes. Three players, including two starters, were disqualified from the game.

"When I get near the plane I'm going to do some back-flips up the steps," Calipari said afterward. "I'm so happy."

Pitino was so not happy. The Louisville coach felt it was inappropriate for Calipari to work referees on a teleconference a full 48 hours before tipoff, and he believed it affected the way the game was officiated. Pitino eventually addressed the issue with the C-USA office.

And that's but one story from the history of the Calipari-Pitino feud.

It's not a tremendous story.

Nobody punched anybody.

But that's sort of how these Calipari-Pitino stories go because there's not one big incident that led to the demise of their relationship, which is what people keep asking me to pinpoint. Almost every time I've gone on a radio show this week somebody has asked exactly where and when the Calipari-Pitino relationship turned south, and the truth is that it's impossible to identify because this is something that happened over time. There are lots of little stories but no really big ones.

They've just basically irritated each other to death for more than a decade.

"And I think it's more John than Rick," said one coach who considers both men friends. "John just likes to [bleep] with Rick. He loves it. He can't help himself."

For proof consider Calipari's comments from last October. He was asked a generic question about Kentucky fans and somehow used it to take a not-so-subtle shot at Louisville.

"There's no other state, none, that's as connected to their basketball program as this one because those other states have other programs," Calipari told KSTV. "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."

Calipari pretending Louisville -- one of the top college basketball programs of all time -- wasn't worthy of being listed as a program in the state of Kentucky didn't go over well with Pitino. He responded a couple of days later.

"Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people," Pitino told CBSSports.com. "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone, wear it."

So Pitino basically called Calipari jealous, malicious, ignorant and paranoid. Those are the words he chose. Which is why it was funny here Thursday at the Superdome in advance of Saturday's Final Four showdown between Calipari's Wildcats and Pitino's Cardinals when Pitino said "there's no animosity" between he and Calipari.

"It's just we're competitors, and we want to win," Pitino added. "We want to beat each other out for recruits. That's the truth."

That's part of the truth.

But that's not the whole truth.

There's much more to this than that -- although there's no doubt Calipari and Pitino are, like Pitino said, competitors who want to win and beat each other for recruits, which might be why Calipari called Cards freshman Chane Behanan when the McDonald's All-American was on his way to Louisville for an official visit as a high school senior. "He just wanted to talk," Behanan said Thursday, "and see how I was doing."

Rest assured Pitino didn't take it that way when he heard about the call. And that's but one more story from the history of this feud. There are plenty others circulating -- lots of them factual, some of them more fictional than not. Either way, they are what's dominating conversations in advance of this weekend's Final Four. We're all sitting around New Orleans, you know, just waiting for that little cord to be pulled again.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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