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A History of the John Calipari/Bruce Pearl Rivalry


On Saturday, John Calipari and Bruce Pearl will face off for the twelfth time in their careers. Don’t let the recent good-natured quips fool you; back when Calipari was at Memphis and Pearl at Tennessee, the two were engaged in a fierce rivalry. Some would go as far to say they hated each other, while others would argue that the animosity was all for show. After spending the day combing through the archives to examine their relationship, I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.

Calipari at Memphis, Pearl at Tennessee

In 2006, the series between Memphis and Tennessee was renewed after a four-year hiatus when the Volunteers threatened to stop playing the Tigers in football if the basketball series didn’t start back up. After starting on a sour note, the rivalry grew more intense as Calipari and Pearl traded jabs, Cal reportedly upset Pearl was recruiting on his turf in Memphis while Pearl felt Calipari didn’t respect Tennessee’s program. In 2005, Pearl and Calipari fought for standout point guard Willie Kemp from Bolivar, Tennessee, a small town just over an hour from Memphis. Calipari became irked when Pearl kept contacting Kemp even after Kemp had committed to Memphis. From there, it was on.


January 18, 2006: #4 Memphis 88, Tennessee 79
FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tennessee

Even though Tennessee was still in rebuilding mode for the first meeting between Calipari and Pearl, the Volunteers put up a fight, keeping the game close until Memphis eventually put them away in the last seven minutes.


December 6, 2006: Tennessee 76, #16 Memphis 58
Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tennessee

This is one instance in which the pregame banter was more interesting than the game itself. Pearl wanted to show Memphis that Tennessee is a nationally relevant program after Calipari complained that because the game wasn’t on national TV, future games with Tennessee didn’t need to be on Memphis’ schedule.

“It’s vital,” Pearl said, via Dan Wolken. “Memphis looks at itself as a national program. And it is. They look at Tennessee as a regional program. We are trying to become a national Top 25 program. There is no program in the country that respects us less than Memphis, and that’s because we haven’t done enough to earn their respect. That should bother our fans enough that we should try to show Memphis we are indeed a national program. But we have to do it on the floor.”

After hearing those remarks, Calipari subtly jabbed back:

“I don’t try to create any kind of animosity or hatred. I don’t make accusations, because when the players figure out it’s about ego for the coach, they won’t play for him. Eventually, what happens is, they know it’s all about him and not what you feel. So I just don’t play any of that. What we’re trying to do is, we know how hard the game is going to be. We respect their program, we respect their coach.”

Pearl ended up having the last laugh in this one. Kentucky native Chris Lofton scored a career-high 34 points, including six threes. The game was never close, with Tennessee leading by as much as 23 in the first half.


February 23, 2008: #2 Tennessee 66, #1 Memphis 62
FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tennessee

When people talk about the early days of the Calipari/Pearl rivalry, this is the game they point to. College Gameday came to Memphis for the showdown between #1 and #2. The stakes were high for the Tigers, who were 26-0, and the game ended up being a classic, going down to the final seconds. Freshman Derrick Rose had 23 points, 5 assists, and 4 steals, while Tyler Smith and JP Prince led the way for Tennessee, scoring 16 and 13 respectively. To this day, Calipari still mentions this game as one that got away.


January 24, 2009: #22 Memphis 54, Tennessee 52
Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tennessee

A season later, Calipari got payback, beating Tennessee by two on their home court behind a sensational game from Tyreke Evans, who hit a free throw with one second left to seal the victory for Memphis.


March 30, 2009: Kentucky hires John Calipari

Hilariously enough, Bruce Pearl was rumored to be a candidate to replace Calipari at Memphis.


Calipari at Kentucky, Pearl at Tennessee

Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America

Just because Calipari was at Kentucky didn’t mean the rivalry with Pearl had to slow down. In October 2009, Cal came out swinging at SEC Basketball Media Days, an otherwise boring affair. When asked about the friction with Pearl, Calipari said it started with their turf battles in recruiting.

“He was trying to take over the state, and I wasn’t going to let him,’’ Calipari said. “I conceded the rest of the state other than Memphis. I’m not recruiting Knoxville, you’re recruiting Memphis; that’s why I didn’t want to play him in a home-and-home. What good does it do for me to go to Knoxville, other than to play in front of 22,000 people in Orange? …I can’t stand the color.”

That last line will forever endear him to Kentucky fans.


February 13, 2010: #3 Kentucky 73, #12 Tennessee 62
Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky

In Pearl and Calipari’s first meeting since Cal became head coach at Kentucky, John Wall led the Cats over JP Prince and the Volunteers, scoring 24 points. Eric Bledsoe fought through a shooting slump to score 16 points in the second half. (Fun fact: After scoring 54 points on the Volunteers a year earlier, Jodie Meeks came back to Rupp and was introduced to raucous cheers.)


February 27, 2010: #17 Tennessee 74, #2 Kentucky 65
Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tennessee

Kentucky came back from 19 down to make it close at the end, but JP Prince scored four free throws down the stretch to seal the upset for Tennessee, snapping an 8-game winning streak for Kentucky. The 2009-2010 group’s inconsistent shooting came back to haunt them, the Cats only connecting on 2-22 from three-point land.


March 13, 2010: #2 Kentucky 74, #15 Tennessee 45
SEC Tournament, Nashville, Tennessee

Kentucky came to Nashville to make a case for a #1 seed, and gave Bruce Pearl the most lopsided loss of his career at Tennessee thus far. DeMarcus Cousins had 19 points and 15 rebounds, followed by Eric Bledsoe with 17, and John Wall with 14. In a memorable tournament, this was a memorable semifinal in front of a frenzied crowd.


February 8, 2011: #18 Kentucky 73, Tennessee 61
Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky

This was Bruce Pearl’s first game back from an 8-game suspension for lying to the NCAA about the program’s recruiting practices. Pearl joked beforehand that SEC Commissioner Mike Slive wanted to suspend him for 10 games but decided to shorten it to eight after seeing Tennessee played at Kentucky and at Florida that week. Kentucky overcame a slow start to beat the Volunteers by 12, but the real story was how several fans at Rupp taunted Pearl to the point he had to have security escort him to the locker room at half and his assistants were caught jawing with fans at the start of the second half.


Sunday, March 6, 2011: #20 Kentucky 64, Tennessee 58
Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tennessee

At this point, the writing was on the wall for Bruce Pearl, who ended his career at Tennessee with a 1-4 record against Calipari’s Kentucky squads. Brandon Knight overcame a rough first half to finish with 19 points and lead the Cats to the 6-point win, which ended a four-game road losing streak.

“To leave second place on the table and not finish with Kentucky is disappointing. … Getting swept by Kentucky is disappointing,” Pearl said. “I do feel it’s a benchmark I should be judged on, and I obviously have not done my job in our rivalry with Kentucky.”


March 21, 2011: Bruce Pearl is fired by Tennessee


Calipari at Kentucky, Pearl at Auburn


With his three-year show cause penalty coming to an end, Bruce Pearl was hired by Auburn on March 18, 2014. At the SEC Meetings in Sandestin in May 2014, Calipari praised the hire in typical Calipari fashion, pairing the compliment with a quip.

“He’s going to do a fine job,” Calipari said of Pearl. “I’ve tried to tell him to keep his shirt on and don’t paint his body.”

The ice seemed to be thawing on both sides, with Pearl admitting that part of the animosity between the two was just for rivalry’s sake.

“I used to get after Cal and he used to get after me,” Pearl said. “It just made the game more interesting.”


February 21, 2015: #1 Kentucky 110, Auburn 75
Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky

Kentucky was 26-0 coming in to the game, a significant stat because the last time Calipari had a 26-0 squad face Bruce Pearl, they lost. Calipari knew that, telling reporters before the game that, even though Kentucky was an overwhelming favorite, Pearl and his team could knock off the Cats like the Volunteers did #1 Memphis in 2008. Of course, that didn’t happen, nor did Pearl really expect it to, saying before the game he knew “Payback is a bitch.” Kentucky dominated, giving Pearl his worst loss in his tenures at Auburn and Tennessee.


March 14, 2015: #1 Kentucky 91, Auburn 67
SEC Tournament, Nashville, Tennessee

Things weren’t much better for Auburn against Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. The Tigers were without forward Jordon Granger and Cinmeon Bowers, who were suspended prior to the game. Auburn cut the lead to 13 in the second half, but that’s as close as they would get the rest of the game. cpwhoknows

January 16, 2016: #14 Kentucky vs. Auburn
Auburn Arena, Auburn, Alabama

Kentucky will be favored in Saturday’s game, but as we’ve learned this season, that doesn’t mean much. Auburn is currently 7-8 and 13th in the SEC; however, if Pearl has taught us anything over the years, it’s that he’ll have that arena hyped up and ready to take down Kentucky on Saturday. Calipari has five straight wins over Pearl, who would love nothing more than to get his foot back in the door with a win over the Cats. He’s had a lot of recruiting success at Auburn so far, and an upset over the perennial #1 team in the country would be the marquee win he’s been waiting for.

While the rivalry between Calipari and Pearl may have cooled over the years, given their history, it only takes one misstep to fire it back up.

To be continued…

Article written by Mrs. Tyler Thompson

No, I will not make you a sandwich, but you can follow me on Twitter @MrsTylerKSR or email me.

6 Comments for A History of the John Calipari/Bruce Pearl Rivalry

  1. maconvolfan
    10:28 pm January 14, 2016 Permalink

    I still love Bruce.

  2. Shawn Kemp
    11:30 pm January 14, 2016 Permalink

    Julius Randle via Allie LaForce on NBA on TNT: “Playing at UK was the hardest thing I’ve ever done… nothing could have better prepared me for the NBA.”

    • Shawn Kemp
      11:30 pm January 14, 2016 Permalink


  3. dandycat
    6:38 am January 15, 2016 Permalink

    This is 2016…last I checked

  4. Mathlete
    7:53 am January 15, 2016 Permalink

    I had forgotten that at one point during Pearl’s tenure Tennessee was ranked the #1 team in the country…