COLUMN: Despite differences, Calipari and Huggins share friendship



TAMPA, Fla.—Bob Huggins and John Calipari represent a classic case of opposites attracting.

Huggins is laid-back, a straight shooter who has no qualms telling a reporter who wasn’t present for last year’s Elite Eight clash between the Mountaineers and the Cats that “that’s (his) loss” if he wanted details regarding the story of the heart attack Huggins suffered in 2002 on a Cincinnati recruiting trip. As it so happened, the EMT who helped save Huggins’ life also happened to be a cousin of Calipari, who supposedly wasn’t going to let Huggins die before Calipari could defeat him.

Calipari’s version of the story, though he wasn’t there, corroborates with Huggins’ for the most part. Remember that Calipari is the ultimate salesman who would have no trouble convincing someone to buy his oceanside property in Iowa and can regularly talk circles around any question he’s asked by a reporter in a tone of voice several levels higher than Huggins’.

Oh, and there’s the wardrobe; Huggins opts for comfort whether it’s time for practice or time for a game and sports what has become his signature tracksuit look. Conversely, Calipari dresses to impress with his fancy suits, ties, loafers and a gelled hair-do that is always just-so.

“He buys expensive suits, mine stay in the closet,” Huggins quipped.

Despite the differences in style and demeanor, the West Virginia head coach and the Kentucky head coach have similarities: Each have established winning programs at multiple stops in their respective coaching careers.

The two coaches both share the connection of having led teams to the Final Four—Huggins at Cincinnati in 2002 and Calipari at UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008).

Above all else, and perhaps most surprisingly, these two competitive coaches from what Calipari said was the “same neck of the woods,” foster a friendship beneath all the differences on the surface.

It’s the same reason that each of them began Friday’s news conference ahead of UK and West Virginia’s third round clash in the same manner, with facetious gibes directed at each other.

Said Huggins: “I’m struggling to find something I really like about him.”

To which Calipari replied: “I can’t stand Bob Huggins.”

Clearly, both coaches know how to work a room, yet it still seems strange that two of the most polarizing figures in college athletics somehow gravitate toward to each other.

The coaches attributed the foundation of their friendship to the passion for basketball each possessed starting at a young age and over the years they’ve had the fortune of rising to the national ranks in the same era.

That being said, whether it’s on the recruiting trail or on the court, you’d expect these vivacious coaches to have ruffled each other the wrong way at some point. The mutual respect has been too great for that to happen.

“Our paths have crossed, and obviously we’ve stayed friends, and in this profession that’s not easy,” Calipari said.

When Cal and Huggy Bear share the sideline Saturday for the 10th time in history, the cameras will surely catch as much action from the two coaching giants as they do from the players on the court.

“Cal is not going to out-coach me and I’m certainly not going to out-coach him,” Huggins said. “So it’s decided by players.”

If it’s not coach versus coach that have made the difference, then the players have done an awfully good job of making the all-time record between these two coaches decidedly lopsided in favor of Huggins, who holds an 8-1 all-time record versus Calipari-coached teams.

“If you would go back and look at the games, the games have been—I mean, we’ve just been lucky, that’s all,” Huggins said.

Luck, or lack thereof, played a part in UK’s 73-66 loss to the Mountaineers in the Elite Eight last season. The Cats were 0-for-20 from beyond the arc at one point in the game, a star-studded roster with soon-to-be future professionals was confounded by a 1-3-1 defense that Huggins said he didn’t expect to use as much as he did throughout that game.

On Saturday, UK holds the higher seed, but isn’t as heavily favored. West Virginia’s experience could be enough to confound UK’s youth this year, regardless of defensive schemes.

And if that happens, you could expect Huggins to needle his friend about his continued head-to-head dominance, right?

“No, we’ll probably play again the next NCAA Tournaments, so why would I do that?” Huggins said.

After all, their success has been as enduring as their friendship.