I heard the question asked the other day, “Who is John Calipari’s biggest coaching rival?” The first and most obvious answer that jumped out to me was to say Rick Pitino. After all, Pitino is the coach of Kentucky’s in-state, and biggest rival Louisville. The two have gone toe to toe dating back to Calipari’s early days at UMASS when Pitino was still at Kentucky. Calipari has even drawn some comparisons to a young Rick Pitino when he was in his prime. The intense match-ups continued when Calipari’s Memphis team squared off against Pitino’s Louisville team on a regular basis. Since arriving at Kentucky though, John Calipari has done nothing but produce wins over Pitino every single time they have faced off, including a Final 4 victory last season. Calipari’s most recent national championship was last year. Pitino’s was in 1996. Calipari outpaces Pitino in the world of landing high profile recruits. Even though the two go head-to-head every season in the heated rivalry game around the new year, I think Calipari understands that while the rivalry wins are nice, he has much bigger fish to fry. There’s a healthy rivalry and banter that is sometimes exchanged between the two, but Rick Pitino is not Calipari’s biggest rival.
Calipari’s biggest rival doesn’t reside in the SEC either. Who could it even be, really? Billy Donovan is the only other coach who currently comes close to Calipari’s level of production at Florida. Donovan’s Gators continually prove to be Kentucky’s biggest foe in conference play, fielding talented teams year in and year out– but I think it’s safe to say Calipari still distances himself from Donovan in current on-court success, as well as recruiting.
Some of the other biggest names in college basketball– Coach K, Roy Williams, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, etc…they simply don’t play one another on a regular basis or nearly enough to produce a grand rivalry. The biggest names in coaching aren’t sharing the lime light with Calipari and Kentucky in the SEC.
John Calipari does have a big-time rivalry though, one that drives him deep down– one that pushes him to continue getting better and finding new ways every day to be successful. Calipari’s biggest rival–and it’s a huge one, is history. Calipari isn’t chasing Rick Pitino. He certainly isn’t chasing Tom Crean. He’s chasing history. Calipari already dominates the national recruiting scene. Sure, he loses a kid he really wants every now and then. He might even relinquish the #1 recruiting class title from time to time (though he probably won’t ever have a class that doesn’t fall in the top 5). It doesn’t matter though. He owns high level recruiting, and you really can’t argue against the fact.
For Calipari it’s not about a hatred or a back and forth with one particular guy across the court. It’s about something even bigger. It’s about having six first round NBA draft picks in one year. It’s about having a perfect 40-0 season. It’s about chasing UCLA’s total number of national championships. It’s about history.
History is John Calipari’s biggest rival. And for now, he’s simply chasing it. But it might not be long before he’s getting the best of his rival.