The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 19, 2011

Huggins vs. Calipari: Close friends in search of first national title

TAMPA, Fla. — This should be about West Virginia University and Kentucky, this NCAA Round of 32 matchup that will be played here at 12:15 p.m. today. It should be, but it isn’t.

It should be about the rematch of the Elite Eight game played a year ago, a game the Mountaineers won by employing a 1-3-1 zone that completely stymied the favored Wildcats. It should be, but it isn’t.

It is, instead, about two giants of the coaching industry, a pair of close friends, each in search of his first national title. It is about Bob Huggins of West Virginia and John Calipari of Kentucky, men who on the surface seem as different as are their basketball philosophies but who are, instead, soul mates.

And so it is, as the off-day interviews transpire in the media room of the St. Petersburg Times Forum, that the questioning inevitably turns to the relationship of the two coaches, which is even more meaningful than the fact that in their head-to-head confrontations Huggins holds an 9-1 advantage.

Immediately, each coach lets you know just what it is he enjoys about the other.

The first question of Huggins asks about why the two hit if off.

Deadpan, as always, Huggins answers:

“I don’t know. I’m struggling to find something that I really like about it.”

Laughter ensues.

When Calipari takes the podium, he is asked a similar question.

His answer:

“I can’t stand Bob Huggins.”

You kind of sense they’ve put on this act before.

“Are there more similarities than differences between you two?” Huggins is asked.

“No. He dresses; I choose not to. He buys expensive suits; mine stay in the closet.”

More laughter.

You have to go back to the roots of their relationship, back even before the coaching days.

“I think what Cal and I have is from the time we were young there was a great passion for this game,” Huggins said. “You know, John was the ultimate camp guy. He was at Five-Star. He was at all the camps and just loved being around the game. I kind of grew up in the gym, my dad being a high school basketball coach, and so I spent countless hours in the gym.”

“We’re from the same neck of the woods,” Calipari said. “I remember him when he was at Walsh College. I remember him even before that when he’d come to the Pitt fieldhouse in the old day. No one got booed like Bob. I’m not even sure he was allowed in Duquesne’s building because he screamed at B.B. Flenory very hard one game, if I remember right.”

What brought them together was a player at West Virginia named Joe Fryz, who had played in high school with Calipari.

“I’ve just followed his career,” Calipari said. “I can remember him at Walsh when he was getting it done, and I can remember him at camps, going up to him. I was still a counselor, and talking to him. And our paths have crossed, and obviously we’ve stayed friends, and in this profession that’s not easy.”

Indeed, it isn’t, for these are competitive men, who even when they aren’t playing each other, often are recruiting against each other. There are always reasons to go off in different directions, reasons for grudges to develop.

But they haven’t with Huggins and Calipari.

If I was upset with everybody that we recruited against, I wouldn’t have any friends. Everybody beats us,” Huggins said. “No, I mean, we — I think when you have mutual respect for each other, it’s — we recruited a guy against (Huggins’ former Cincinnati assistant) Andy Kennedy, and AK and I are very, very close, as you know. What are you going to do? He’s a heck of a guy; he takes care of his players; he does the right things.”

And it’s no different with Calipari.

“I don’t take recruiting personal,” Calipari said. “If the families decide that they want to play for another coach, whether it’s Bob or anybody else, I move on. I’ve never yelled at a coach or a player for not coming with me, and I wish you luck and hope you do well unless we play you and I hope we smash you if we play you.

“With Bob or anybody, I try real hard not to take this stuff personal, move on to the next young man who really wants to play for us or me personally.”

A year ago, before the meeting between WVU and Kentucky, Huggins told the story of his heart attack and the ambulance ride to a Pittsburgh hospital where his life was saved by a EMT who was Calipari’s cousin.

During the telling, however, there were some discrepancies between the way Huggins and Calipari told it.

Told that, Huggins responded:

“Cal wasn’t there. I wasn’t going to tell it. Cal likes to tell it better than I do. Of course, Cal wasn’t dying and I was.”

And Calipari, when told Huggins’ response, replied:

“He was out cold, and he tells you he remembers everything? He was out,” said Calipari.

So what was the real story?

“They come in and they kind of scooped me up off the sidewalk there in the Pittsburgh airport and put me in an ambulance and hooked me up, started pumping some morphine in me to slow everything down, and I’m kind of in and out of consciousness,” Huggins said.

“I mean, I know I’m not doing very well, you know. So I say to the EMT, I said, ‘How much longer?’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve never lost a patient.’

“So I said to him, ‘I ain’t no old lady now. I know when I’m hurting. I’m not going to make it a lot longer.’ So he says, ‘What’s the ETA?’ And they said, ‘I don’t know, 22 minutes or something like that.’%

“Well, I heard him say, ‘Abort, abort, abort.’ And then I passed back out.”

Some time goes by, and Huggins awakes with the EMT leaning over him.

“When I woke up he was a lot more serious about it. He was — he kind of put his hand on my shoulder, he said, ‘Coach, I’m Cal’s cousin.’

“Now, Cal says it’s his nephew, but the guy said, ‘I’m Cal’s cousin. We’re not going to let you die until he beats you at least once.’ And that’s the story.”

Huggins swears that’s the way it happened.

Calipari heard about the heart attack and flew back to Pittsburgh. He said that Huggins comes across tough, like he wants to fight everyone, but that “he’s a teddy bear.”

It was important to Huggins to have that kind of support.

Now, they will go at each other again, a matchup between a pair of coaches who invoke strong feelings from fans, either for or against.

“Look, you guys either put a black hat on some of us and you put a white hat on some of us, and I’m not going to be able to fight it,” Calipari said to the media. “I just do my job; take care of kids; Bob does the same; graduate our kids wherever we’ve been. We’ve helped them reach their dreams and develop habits that have helped them later on in life. They’ve all stayed in touch.

“I mean, at the end of the day, 50 years from now, what we’ve accomplished, Bob and myself, it’s there, and when there’s no emotion to it, you look at what we’ve done in the communities we’ve been, with the athletes we’ve had, the graduation rates we’ve had, what we’ve done on those college campuses, what we’ve done to give back, and people will judge us that way.”

And that is the last word.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at

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