Coaches, players, Cinderellas, old New England turf rivals, they were all at a banquet to honor their Final Four achievement Thursday night when Jim Calhoun decided the time was ripe to play the "My Three Sons" card.
"I said, 'I feel like Fred MacMurray," Calhoun, 68, said. "With Shaka [Smart] being the brilliant and very smart, but cool fighter. Brad [Stevens] hasn't said the wrong word ever. I said, 'Brad, lighten up a bit. I screw up every two minutes. Would you screw up just once?'
At this point, Uncle Charley, played by William Demarest, probably should have charged in to restore order, but this is college basketball and we all know coaches rule the house. So here was Kentucky's John Calipari, Calhoun's alleged problem child, with his banquet response at the ready. Befitting the Texas setting, Calipari went Lloyd Bentsen on the UConn coach.
"I knew Fred MacMurray, Mr. Calhoun," Calipari said, "and you are no Fred MacMurray."
On the eve of their Final Four matchup, both told their story with smiles Friday. Truth be told, it's hard to know how much the needle on the hate meter is jumping anymore.
Yes, Calipari did list Calhoun alongside Bruce Pearl and Rick Pitino in a recent Sports Illustrated article as coaches he just doesn't like. And, yes, a few years ago when Calhoun was battling health problems and was asked if it might be used against him, he recounted the story of how a young coach once told a high school player that a coach was dying of cancer to get a recruit. The story was never proved and seemed to be debunked in the SI piece, yet it has been repeated so many times about a young Pitt assistant named Calipari in relation to St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca that it's popular legend.
Still, Calhoun twice went out of his way on Friday to praise Calipari, who at 52 has now taken three schools to the Final Four and had the first two appearances vacated by the NCAA. Calhoun called Calipari brilliant and a terrific coach. Later, he said, "I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and no disdain for him as a person."
"We're fine," Calipari insisted.
Maybe it's all true. Maybe it's all garbage. This much is fact.
Calhoun stands in the way of Calipari's first national title, while Calipari stands in the way of Calhoun becoming only the fifth coach to win three. That's right. John Wooden won 10. Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp won four. Bob Knight won three. We're talking Mount Rushmore of coaches, folks, even as Nate Miles threatens to chip away at the rock.
"I would treasure it as much as any other single human being, only because my dad told told me, 'You're known by the company you keep,''' Calhoun said. "I kind of like that company."
Calhoun appeared to be on the cusp before, in 2006, when many thought he had the best team, but the Huskies were shocked by George Mason in the Elite Eight. Yet as fast as an ankle-breaking Kemba Walker jab step, here he is looking at No. 3 once more.
"As a true basketball junkie, I would be awed by being in that company," Calhoun said. "I read in the game notes I was now tied with John Wooden [fourth with 47 NCAA Tournament wins]. Holy cow, tied with John Wooden, that's pretty special stuff."
So there is so much at stake for both men. With one at UMass in Amherst and the other at UConn in Storrs in the early '90s, they admit New England wasn't nearly big enough for the two of them.
"He was loud, 50 miles away, trying to fight for a little bit of turf," said Calhoun, who used to derisively refer to Calipari as Johnny Clam Chowder. "There's not much turf in New England basketball-wise … John really was trying to claim New England. He could never say he 'pahked the cah in Hahvahd yahd.' He had the red stuff, not the real clam chowder. I took umbrage to it, but I take umbrage to a lot of things."
"In the Northeast, you're so tight, you're right on top of each other, that it is a competitive environment. Our radio shows and television shows were in each other's state."
And here's the tense, beautiful, ugly, wonderful thing about the "brand name" national semifinal. Butler and VCU will be warm and fuzzy, with talk of fairytales come true. Kentucky-UConn is as simple as this. Two old rivals are fighting for a little bit of turf again, 94 feet of court, yet with huge ramifications.
"The whole enchilada," Calhoun said, suddenly going Tex-Mex in the middle of his New England motif. "The thing that has changed John's team [over the course of the season] isn't Brandon Knight, who's wonderful, isn't Doron Lamb, who's wonderful, isn't Terrence Jones, who down the line may be the best of them all. It's his older players."
That's the Bizarro World factor in all this. Calipari had all those magnificent freshmen, including John Wall, last year and lost in the Elite Eight. Next year, he has three of the best high school players coming. Yes, Knight, Lamb and Jones are freshmen. Yet it is DeAndre Liggins, a 6-foot-6 junior, who is itching for a chance to guard Kemba Walker after UConn's 17-point rout of Kentucky in Maui and could play such a big role. Liggins has come a long way in life since his brother was murdered by his sister's ex-boyfriend. So has Josh Harrellson, a 6-10 senior who nearly quit the program. He could make life difficult for Alex Oriakhi.
The King of the One-And-Done is counting on experience, while Calhoun, who always has counted on experience, is looking for lots of help from freshmen. Harrellson was once ordered to sit in a toilet stall at halftime by former coach Billy Gillispie and made to return from Vanderbilt that night in an equipment truck. Harrellson got to start only because Turkish recruit Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible for receiving benefits from his club team.
"Coach Gillispie was a very smart coach," Harrellson said. "I don't think he had the best way of teaching. He wasn't a great encourager. Coach Cal is the opposite."
Of course, last fall Calipari ordered Harrellson to shut down his Twitter account and put him on a tough conditioning program, and Harrellson tweeted he wasn't getting love from Calipari.
Yes, this is Bizarro World. Calipari, who had his Final Four appearances with UMass and Memphis vacated, has never personally been named in NCAA sanctions. Calhoun has. And now, after it appeared to be all finished, Nate Miles, who refused to cooperate with the NCAA, is talking. He talked to Slam magazine, saying Calhoun knew all about the improper benefits. On Friday, he repeated this to The New York Times and said he'd be open to talk to the NCAA. The NCAA, according to the Times, went looking for Miles, essentially homeless, on Friday in Toledo. Miles said he's looking for money for any further media interviews. Johnny Clam Chowder must be loving all this.
I was a big '60s sitcom kid, but I don't remember this ever being in a "My Three Sons" episode.
Sweet 16 Column
Calhoun Vs. Calipari A Show In Itself