Relationship runs deeper than basketball

By Nick Gray

[email protected]

The way Texas head coach Rick Barnes spoke about UK coach John Calipari on Wednesday could lead one to believe that Calipari was Barnes’ best man at his wedding.

In reality, Calipari and Barnes will be opponents Friday at Rupp Arena in one of the premier nonconference matchups of the college basketball season.

However, the respect between the two coaches dates back to 1978, when Barnes said he and Calipari met as young coaches at a high school camp. For the next 30 years, their careers followed a similar path.

“He had just transferred back from UNC Wilmington to Clarion – I think it was Clarion, I think that was the school. He was a counselor at the camp. I had graduated from college,” Barnes said. “That’s when I first met John. From that time we’ve been friends. We’ve had mutual friends. I’ve got so much respect for him.”

In the years that followed, both coaches accepted head coaching jobs at programs that were not historically relevant early in their careers. Calipari coached at UMass and Memphis; Barnes led programs at Providence and Clemson. And despite the programs’ past struggles, each coach led their schools to successes that those programs have not seen before or since.

“Like anybody being a young head coach like he was and I was, you go into leagues that he’s had to go into and leagues that I’ve had to go into, and sometimes you want to fight for everything you can,” Barnes said. “And John is a fighter.“

While Calipari fought for relevance at the turn of the century in Memphis, Barnes was leading Texas, a program that, thoughsecond to football in the state, has the resources to compete nationally every year. Barnes, for the last 15 years, has continued to grow and push an underdog program stuck in the shadow of its football program.

Calipari shed his role as coach of Memphis for the bright lights and rabid fans at UK, one of the elite programs of college basketball.

“I just think he’s been really, really underrated as a coach,” Barnes said. “I don’t think people realize it’s not as easy as you think that when you do have talent, and it’s certainly not as easy as you think when you’ve got a target on your back every night and you’ve got bullets coming at you.”

Barnes made it clear that friendship aside, no love will be lost when the two teams square off on Friday at Rupp, but when the horn sounds for the final time, handshakes will be exchanged by the two close friends.

“To be as honest as I can be with you,” Barnes continued, “I think if I had a problem, a personal problem of any nature, if I needed some help with helping someone else or anything, I know if I called John Calipari he would say to me, ‘What do you need? Don’t say another word. You just tell me what you need.’”