Ever since he broke into the coaching world, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been consistent in two aspects of basketball: winning games and tormenting rivals. So, with that in mind, I decided to look back at four of his funniest and wildest ‘beefs’ in the basketball world throughout his career.
The earliest one of the bunch, and assuredly the most memorable. Two days before Kentucky’s 31-point comeback vs. LSU, in February of ’94, a swashbuckling coaching wunderkind named John Calipari confirmed his spot at the helm of the conference. His Massachusettes Minutemen toppled eighth-ranked bitter-rival Temple, with the fiery John Cheney as the head man.
Calipari won an ugly rivalry battle between the two sides in ’94, taking a firm three-game lead in that season’s conference race. For Cheney, it was the boiling point of on- and off-court frustration with the UMass coach. Between the lines, there was a note of jealousy.¹ During Cal’s postgame presser, an irate John Cheney stormed into the press room demanding a fistfight. As Cheney charged toward Cal intending to put a fist through his Charlie Sheen hairdo, reporters swarmed and stopped the suit-wearing A-10 icons like they were two boxers at a weigh-in.
Unsatisfied with nonviolence, Cheney cheered “I’ll kill you” along with several other bullying threats before he was politely ushered out. Cal backed off the podium and was ready to put the gloves on,² so this was a two-way-street at the time. A surreal college basketball event all around. As for the beef? Well, beyond their days battling for A-10 supremacy, Cheney and Calipari have since grown to become buddies.
The Selection Committee
From 2014-on, Calipari has appeared on virtually every Selection Sunday aftershow with his newest former Cats’ framed NBA jerseys hung Matt Jones-style as he bombards Reece Davis with complaints of the NCAA.
•In 2014, he cried of unfairness to Wichita State and eventually Louisville and Michigan, who, in his eyes, were dealt a raw hand by having to play an under-seeded Kentucky team. His quote on the matter: “When you mis-seed a team, it’s not them you’re hurting, it’s the teams they play.” What a lyrical SOB–and he backed it all up, or excuse me, Aaron Harrison did.
•In 2016, after defeating 3-seed Texas A&M in the SEC Championship that day, Calipari was sarcastically “surprised we weren’t a 5-seed.” Although to be fair, we couldn’t even beat Indiana.
•In 2017, a year after beating A&M in the SEC Final and fresh off the plane ride back from Kentucky’s ’17 SEC Championship victory, he asked “what do these conference tournaments even mean?” Rightfully so. And just you wait.
•In 2018, he claimed he was riding in the car with Ellen when his phone blew up with text messages. “I didn’t know there were so many ways to say ‘you got screwed again,'” he laughed as the ESPN crew joined in. This came on the heels of Kentucky beating 3-seed Tennessee in…the SEC Championship…and receiving a five-seed in the same bracket as Virginia (no. 1 overall) and Arizona (preseason no. 1 and would-be 2nd-round matchup).
•In 2019, he opened with “Seth you’re making me gag [by] sticking up for them (the committee)” before touting the SEC and asserting Florida would advance as a 10-seed. What else could he complain about that year? Kentucky got Abeline Christian, Wofford, and Houston before the Elite Eight (at that point you’re due a contender). Even with a one-legged PJ, UK survived.
The Selection Committee wrings Cal’s nerves every year. His second-toughest rival at Kentucky? Indiana, who romanticizes the less-important win of their two vs. UK in the Calipari era. Since Christian Watford immortalized himself and Hoosier fans land-slid down the century-old bleachers and clobbered UK players and family, Calipari has refused to pay another visit.
Indianans cry “you’re scared” but those threats have to sound hollow at this point. In the eyes of Kentucky fans, Calipari perceptively turned one of the great pillars of college basketball into a wallowing unloved school child hoping for a visit from Dad. Get in line behind Western, Murray, and the other local nobodies praying for the forbidden luxury of Kentucky coming to their town and beating their team, to use a Cal-ism.
But…it’s not like Calipari has owned Indiana on the court. UK outlasted them en route to the 2012 title, but Watford’s shot and the 2016 tournament win more than make up for a Sweet Sixteen loss on IU’s side.
This is more of a political rivalry. I don’t even think these guys dislike each other³ but rather just the business idea of one another. From a pure basketball perspective, Calipari’s always-brimming pot of boiled-water opinions has shaded Coach K occasionally, particularly when it comes to recruiting tactics, where K adapted Calipari’s one-and-done brand around the 2014-15-16 range after the Kentucky coach made three of four Final Fours featuring one-and-done stars.
Here are a couple of past quotes from Cal. You can be the judge: was he taking shots at Coach K or not?
After Marques Bolden’s Commitment: “We’re not trying to say this university or this state will take care of you the rest of your life. There’s no socialism here. This stuff is, ‘You’ve gotta go do it and we’re gonna help you do it.’ Some [recruits] like that. Some don’t like it.”
Some like it, some don’t.4
As if to suggest that a player who chose another school over Calipari’s didn’t like the idea of a challenge, but instead wanted the fantastical illusion of a lifetime #Brotherhood.5
He said something similar later in 2016, appearing to step even further on the “set for life” appeal of Duke compared to reality:
“How preposterous does that sound? What if I say that same thing and the young man decides to transfer for one reason or another? Does that still hold true that we’re going to take care of them the rest of their lives? Our approach is to give them the fishing rod and the lures to help them catch fish, not to just give you the fish.”
Adam Smith would love John Calipari’s basketball program.
Following Duke’s 2019 Season with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett:
We don’t promote two guys and push everyone else to the curb. This is about all these kids becoming their best version. As this team succeeds, we all become our best version. BIG TEAM, BETTER ME. And yes, we trademarked that.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) June 25, 2019
I hope they didn’t trademark that (has anyone heard this since?). When one-and-done comets like Zion and RJ Barrett lose before the Final Four while wearing Duke’s uniforms, fingers get pointed. Calipari made sure they’re pointed at Coach K for not empowering ALL of his players throughout the season, for handing 100% of the offense to freshmen and watching them puke on themselves while being tripled-teamed without a single other competent offensive threat to pass to. A failure in team-building is Cal’s point.
(Have to mention: it is ironic that quote comes just nine months after Zion and RJ handed Kentucky its worst loss of the 2010s.)
1 – Before ’92, Cheney and Temple had made seven of the last eight NCAA Tournaments, won the A-10 three times over that span and also finished as the number one team in the country heading into the 1988 postseason. The youngster was out of place beating those Temple teams, so Cheney thought.
2 – Calipari’s post-game ramblings are like a grizzly bear’s hibernation: under no circumstances are you to interrupt.
3- Remember: Cal had K on his podcast back in 2018–and K even raved about DeMarcus Cousins! Also remember: that podcast ended abruptly that season when it became clear Kentucky had its worst team since 2013.
4- Ahmad Rashad said something similar in The Last Dance moments before the Bulls faced the Pacers in game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He theorized to Michael Jordan, “some guys can and some guys can’t; that’s the way I see it.” Of course, MJ always could. I have a feeling that Marques Bolden would’ve received the Scottie Burrell treatment from the GOAT.
5- #Brotherhood. A goofy motto used by Fraternities, Duke basketball, and all-boys high schools. Make what you will of that trio.