I have a theory that John Calipari and Bruce Pearl are one and the same. OK, since I’ve seen them together on the same basketball court, maybe they aren’t exactly the same person–but rather just very similar personalities. Perhaps they’re like twins separated at birth. Cal became the older successful sibling, well established, at the pinnacle of his career, and thoroughly enjoying the fruits of his hard-earned labor at a flagship university. Bruce, being younger and less appreciated at a lesser known school, is still striving–through his petulant and attention-seeking behavior–for the recognition that he feels he richly deserves.
Both coaches have had several head coaching jobs with different teams, and both have experienced the humiliation of being fired—Cal with the NBA New Jersey Nets and Bruce at the University of Tennessee. Both men have, at some point in their careers, run into trouble with the long arm of the NCAA law. Both men have also had a ton of on the court success at their respective institutions. But perhaps most similar of all, both coaches are champion promoters and showmen—first class carnival barkers and virtuoso used car salesmen looking to sell ice cubes to Eskimos. Whether enticing the latest hot-shot recruit, selling out a half empty arena, or schmoozing with big donors, both Bruce and Cal strive to market where no coach has dared before. Bruce once painted his chest while Cal incessantly beats his own chest.
Like two jealous brothers, the two coaches haven’t always been the modicum of decorum. Much of their animosity stems back from the time they coached and recruited within a few hundred miles of each other. The Volunteer state simply wasn’t big enough for the two competing egos back in the day. When I asked Cal how he would characterize his relationship with Bruce, his answer was unexpectedly short. “We coached against each other a few times when I was at Memphis and then coaching here. He does a great job, mixes up the game. Auburn plays hard. They battle and fight. He’s good at what he does.” Nice words, but not exactly the ringing endorsement you usually hear gushing from the mouths of opposing conference coaches.
Bruce was a bit more effusive and animated with his praise after the 92-72 UK victory. “For a long, long time, one of the greatest jobs in the history of college basketball is what John Calipari did at UMass,” he said. “When he went to Memphis, he was at a place, and it’s hard to believe this. I was at the big school. I was at Tennessee, and Memphis was a smaller school in a corner. They hated Tennessee, and that was the beginning of John and I having a bit of a rivalry. I’d like to think that the things he doesn’t like about me are some of the things I don’t like about him, but I had great respect for him. I always have. When you have respect for a coach like that, and I do, you have to challenge John. I want him to have to prepare to play Auburn. I want him to be pissed off that we beat them last year. They weren’t a great team and we made some shots and made some plays. It was a tough place to play and it matters if you can beat John Calipari at Kentucky. You do want to earn the respect of them here because you respect him.”
On the court, it’s obvious both men still want to win badly. Off the court, however, it appears that outright contempt and undeniable hostility between the two fiery coaches has morphed into a peaceful coexistence and even mutual respect. In other words, they’ve been humbled and have mellowed with age. Politicians, religious zealots, and social activists should all take note. Both coaches, through their own trials and tribulations, are now better able to see the world from the other’s perspective. They’ve walked a mile in each other’s moccasins in the cutthroat world of the coaching profession. They’ve learned that you don’t always have to like your adversary, but you shouldn’t wish ill will against him either. Just make every effort to be civil, cordial, and respectful in your disagreements and a peace that surpasses all understanding will be sure to follow. And then when the opportunity arises—just go and beat his brains out on the basketball court.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.