VIENNA, Va., March 28, 2012 – It is not the Civil War’s Battle of New Orleans, however coming up this weekend the University of Kentucky meets the University of Louisville in the Final Four.
It is the first time these teams have played each other in this major contest, but not the first time to the dance for either.
To those to whom basketball is just a sport, it is indeed difficult to convey the obsessive fervor that overtakes the entire Bluegrass State when “March Madness” time arrives. Every sport has its fans. Kentuckians become total fanatics. Friendships can be broken and family ties severed, all depending on how the ball bounces and in whose court.
The latest mini-wars are those between “friends” on Facebook, and the comments get pretty violent over a ball game. But the real battleground will be the New Orleans Super.
As the two squads of hard-hitting, talented college athletes go face to face we will also be watching their coaches: John Calipari who coaches the Kentucky Wildcats, and Rick Pitino who heads the Louisville Cardinals.
It is interesting to note that Pitino used to coach Kentucky, and harsh feelings still rankle from his departure from Lexington and ultimate arrival in Louisville.
Unfortunately outright scandal accompanies both coaches.
Both teams have outstanding season standings, Kentucky ranking or seeded at No. 1 overall and slated to take it all. The University of Louisville ranks No. 4 in the Western Division, not far behind Kentucky.
And as an orthopedic surgeon friend of mine told me, “when you meet someone from Kentucky, the question is, ‘do you bleed Red or Blue?’ meaning are you for the Cardinals (colors Red and Black) or the Wildcats (colors Blue and White).
It will be Louisville’s eighth Final Four appearance, and Kentucky’s 15 trip there. (In the interests of full disclosure, the writer is somewhere in between, being from Louisville, and my allegiance leans that way.)
While the game draws fans, the coaching staff attracts as much attention as the game itself, and at times their off-court lives overshadow the coaching talents with which each is endowed.
John Calipari has done an outstanding job with the UK Wildcats, but various charges including recruiting violations when he was at both University of Massachusetts and University of Memphis resulted in those teams being stripped of their victorious standing, (“vacated” is the term of record) and the universities forced to refund many thousand dollars in tournament revenue.
Then there was another situation at UMass, when it turned out that his star player, Marcus Camby was allegedly taking payoffs and getting agent-provided hookers on the side! The story goes that when Calipari learned of the situation, he instantly decided to leave Massachusetts for the NBA, saying the latter was his “dream job.”
Rick Pitino coached at UK for a number of years (his home was on one of the tour bus routes as befits someone in such an exalted position.) And when he left the Lexington area to coach the Cardinals in Louisville, among his questionable activities was an interlude with one Karen Sypher, mother of four children, whose after-hours liaison with Pitino was documented by the restaurant owner who left his keys with the coach after closing down for the evening.
Ms. Sypher later tried to extort money from the coach, first demanding cars, and tuition for her kids and phone calls of encouragement to them from the coach.
She was sentenced to seven years in prison last year, but the damage to the coach’s image was irreversible.
Pitino, is the father of five, one of whom is an Assistant Coach on his staff, apparently acknowledged the sex act but claimed it was consensual, and so it went on for some time, not on the hardwood but in the burnished walnut walls of the civil and criminal courts of Kentucky.
This is not to say or infer that either man is not an excellent coach and both give back to the community in various ways. Pitino puts on a golf tournament each year, selling out as soon as it is announced, which raises money for the Academy of the Holy Names, a private all-girls Catholic school, and the Teresian House Center for the Elderly.
Calipari is a big donor and supporter of the Vitale Foundation for Cancer Research and also sponsors the Annual Dick Vitale Gala for that cause. Locally his outreach includes paying rent for needy Lexington, KY, families and raising more than $1.5 million for Haitian victims of the earthquake in 2010, called “Hoops for Haiti.”
Calipari players are taught that charitable endeavors should be more than just writing a check, that they should find a way to make personal contributions to a charity they believe in.
When the final whistle blows in the Super Dome this weekend, it is hoped that these two men with imperfect lives will find a sort of redemption on the basketball floor, doing what they do best – instilling in young men a love for the sport of basketball and a sense of giving back to others.
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