INDIANAPOLIS — They share too many characteristics, have faced off in too many important games and reign over kingdoms that are not separated by enough Kentucky real estate — about 80 miles of I-64 asphalt — for us to believe anything but Rick Pitino and John Calipari harboring an intense dislike for the other.
Yet despite the public perception that both coaches would rather answer a question about student-athletes joining unions than acknowledge their counterpart, Pitino and Calipari continued to insist on Thursday that their decades-long relationship is a cordial one.
"Perception is not reality: We're friends," Pitino said at Lucas Oil Stadium, one day before his fourth-seeded Louisville squad faces Calipari's eighth-seeded Kentucky program in a Sweet 16 matchup. "We respect each other's programs very much and we're friends in this business.
Friends. That's not usually the f-word people think gets tossed between the last two national title winners.
Calipari, however, agreed with that assessment.
"I would say we're friends," Calipari said. "We were in touch throughout the year back and forth. He'd throw something at me. I'd throw something at him. Different things about our teams.
"The stuff about 'they're at each other's throats,' it's just not accurate."
Pitino and Calipari backed up their protestations with more than just words and were seen conversing in the bowels of the stadium while swapping spots on the interview dais.
Maybe these guys don't really dislike one another -- pic.twitter.com/ltgGEblULQ— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 27, 2014
Thursday's routine wasn't anything we haven't heard before. Both men shared similar sentiments before their matchup in the 2012 Final Four, when Calipari beat Pitino en route to winning a national title at Kentucky — something Pitino had done in Lexington 16 years earlier.
"If we were at the Marriott in Las Vegas and we were recruiting, we would have lunch together and a beer together," Pitino said then of Calipari. "That's our relationship."
Of course, because the two men wield so much power in college basketball and have seen their paths cross so many times, it stands to reason everything hasn't always been so chummy among Pitino, 61, and Calipari, six years his junior. The printed record suggests just as much.
As the story is often told, the two met when Calipari was a teenager at the Five Star camp. It continued when Calipari got the job at Pitino's alma mater of UMass — a hiring that was supposedly fueled by Pitino's backing and a $5,000 check written by Pitino to the UMass athletic department.
That origin story of Calipari's head coaching career, however, did not hold up well during a Calipari profile in Sports Illustrated that was written by S.L. Price in 2011. Not only did Price quote a source that said Pitino backed another candidate for the UMass opening, but Pitino was initially reluctant to talk about Calipari for the article.
"I don't really know him so I'd prefer not to," Pitino reportedly said.
Not exactly the type of thing one burger-and-beer buddy would say about the other, is it?
The Pitino-Calipari dynamic has had other famous moments since they first coached against each other in Kentucky's Sweet 16 win over UMass in 1992 — two days before the Duke and Christian Laettner game.
There was the time that Pitino felt Calipari had lobbied the officials before a Memphis-Louisville matchup in 2005 and got his way once the game began. Calipari later made waves when he took Pitino's old job at Kentucky and said that the Wildcats were a unique program in that they lacked the big instate rivalry of say a North Carolina (Duke) or Michigan (Michigan State).
Pitino's response to that bit of selective comparison was a classic.
"Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people. I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid," Pitino told via CBS Sports. "If the shoe fits anyone, wear it."
Of course, none of this would be so intriguing if both men weren't so powerful or if their rivalry weren't so even. Calipari took a slight 10-9 edge in their collegiate matchups when Kentucky beat Louisville back in December. Both men have a Final Four victory over the other (Calipari in 2012, Pitino in 1996) and both won three professional games apiece when they were failing in the NBA with the Nets and Celtics.
Their 20th and latest matchup in the NCAA tournament should be one to remember as Pitino puts his pristine 11-0 record in Sweet 16 games on the line with an experience-heavy team that's defending the 2013 national title. Calipari will respond with a young squad that's rebounded from early disappointment to hint at fulfilling the promise of that preseason No. 1 ranking.
Will the outcome produce more ammo for the thought that they don't like each other? Or is Calipari telling the truth when he says the two men are growing too old for the icy political sparring of the past?
For whatever it's worth, both resisted taking jabs at each other on Thursday, even when they were both asked if one's recent approach toward recruiting — Calipari's one-and-dones vs. Pitino's graduation-bound seniors — was better than the other.
"I'd be stunned if he thinks of me in a week, like me of him," Calipari said. "Both of us have tough jobs that we have to be engulfed in [to succeed]."
Pitino takes an even higher road — for now, at least.
"You know, I think it hurts a little bit because you all bait and try to get certain answers out of us," Pitino said. "We understand what takes place between the lines We understand the fans' intensity but we don't personalize our battles. We understand what it's all about."
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