Who’s Better: John Calipari or Rick Pitino?

By: 10.18.10  •  44 Comments

We argue. You decide.

JOHN CALIPARI (by A. Macaluso)
When it comes to family, no one is closer than the Italians. You used to be able to say the same about John Calipari and his predecessor, Rick Pitino. Both coaches have known each other ever since they worked together at Five Star Camp. Both head coaches were actually friends in the beginning, with Pitino helping Calipari land the head coaching position at Massachusetts in 1988. However, the friendship quickly turned sour when the two met in the Sweet Sixteen of the 1992 NCAA Tournament.

The once-close friends now share an uneasy truce, which came close to exploding when Pitino openly campaigned for either John Pelphrey or Travis Ford — two of his former players — to replace Billy Gillispie at Kentucky, knowing full well that it was Calipari’s dream job.

Now that he has the job, Calipari has quickly turned into the villain of the story, and everyone outside of Kentucky wants to see him lose. The real question is, who’s really the better coach?

If there’s one thing that Calipari can do better than Pitino, it’s finding a way to bring in the best players, no matter what the cost. Not only was he able to convince John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Xavier Henry to commit to Memphis, but he also slapped clauses into their letters-of-intent so they could go somewhere else if he chose to coach at another school. When he accepted the UK job, Wall and Cousins followed. Those two then led the way as Coach Cal made the Elite Eight in his first season in Lexington.

Calipari is one of those guys that will do whatever it takes to win, and is a mastermind at doing so. College basketball is a cut-throat industry, and he can be as lethal as anybody when it comes to putting a winning team on the floor.

While both coach’s resumes are full of success — Pitino has a slight upper hand with his earning of a national championship with Kentucky in ’96 — you can compare their careers as if they lived the same life. But make no mistake about it, Calipari is quickly coming up the ranks and has a real chance to substantially surpass Pitino’s achievements.

He is already the highest-paid coach in college basketball, earning a whopping $4 million annually after signing an eight-year, $32 million deal, and managed to win an SEC championship in his first season with Kentucky. Calipari brought the Wildcats back into championship contention after the previous season, when they failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years.

Pitino can no longer hide from Calipari’s footsteps. He’s changed offenses and schools since hitting the national stage, and welcomes anyone that is willing to help him win. Heading into the season with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country (again), Calipari is on a roll and he’s the type of coach that I’d love to play for: One who refuses to lose.

RICK PITINO (by A. Burton)
Basketball being the ultimate team sport, I’m wary of overvaluing what a championship means to an individual competitor. We don’t need a Podoloff trophy to tell us Dirk, J-Kidd and T-Mac are great players. Or that Jerry Sloan, George Karl and Rick Adelman are great coaches. One man scoring 30, dropping a triple-double, or drawing up genius X’s and O’s can only get you so far when success is steeped in a a dozen others pulling their weight.

But judging college basketball coaches? Championships absolutely matter. College coaches can control their destiny. They choose where they want to go, they make their own rosters, implement their own systems, and don’t have to worry about managing salary caps or out-of-control millionaire egos.

So in pitting Rick Pitino against John Calipari, I have to take the guy who has the ring. Pitino won the national championship in 1996 at Kentucky, and deserves at least a chain or something for constructing the foundation of the ’98 Kentucky team that won another national title under Tubby Smith, after Pitino had gone pro.

Pitino has since built another powerhouse at the Bluegrass State’s little-brother university. In nine years at Louisville he is 220-86 (.719), making seven NCAA Tournament appearances, three Elite Eights, and one Final Four. Pitino guided the program through its transition from Conference-USA to the Big East and quickly established the Cardinals as a perennial threat alongside traditional powers Syracuse, UConn and Georgetown.

Calipari has a gift for recruiting. He has already landed three monster freshmen classes at Kentucky, headlined by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins (2009), Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter (2010), and Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague (2011). Superstar point guards are lining up to play for Coach Cal, and the bigs and wings are sure to follow as he compiles Lottery picks on his roster.

With less talent and a tougher conference slate over the majority of the decade, however, Pitino still keeps pace. Calipari’s record over the last nine years includes seven NCAA Tournaments, four Elite Eights, one Final Four, and one NCAA title game loss. Pitino can match that, plus he has four other Final Four appearances on his resume from his tenures at Kentucky and Providence.

Even when Pitino was at UK, he wasn’t knee-deep in NBA talent like Calipari. Guys like Ron Mercer and Jamal Mashburn were obviously studs coming out of high school, but Pitino also took non-All-Americans like Derek Anderson and Walter McCarty and turned them into first-round NBA picks. He took less-heralded recruits like Reece Gaines and Terrence Williams at Louisville and produced Top-15 picks. He took a full-on project in Nazr Mohammad (Pitino likes to joke that Nazr couldn’t run past halfcourt when he arrived at UK) and helped mold a solid pro. Calipari brings in superstars — Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Dajuan Wagner — lets them rock out for a year, then sends them off to the Lottery. He doesn’t have Pitino’s track record of developing players.

Who would I want my son to play for? Neither, because my boy is either going to Georgetown to fulfill his Dad’s unrequited dreams, or he’ll shock the recruiting world by putting an HBCU on the basketball map. But who would I hire to teach my kid how to play basketball? It has to be Pitino.

Who do you think is the better coach?

-Follow Andy Macaluso on Twitter @_andymac
-Follow Austin Burton on Twitter @AustinBurton206
-Follow Dime Magazine on Twitter @DimeMag

Around The Web