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Great divide

Two coaches at the top of their profession have a long history; just don’t call it a friendly rivalry

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / March 31, 2011

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HOUSTON — The words from both men are more muted now. Experience, success, and time have tempered their feelings, which still burn internally but aren’t on display in public.

Jim Calhoun and John Calipari have faced each other only five times as head coaches over the past 22 years, and meeting No. 6 will be played out on college basketball’s biggest stage Saturday when Connecticut and Kentucky meet in the Final Four at Reliant Stadium.

The early meetings — when Calipari was the young star-in-the-making at Massachusetts and Calhoun was still establishing his Hall of Fame credentials at Connecticut — were more of a New England “family feud’’ thing between schools from neighboring states.

Later, as Calhoun won a pair of national championships at UConn and Calipari moved to Memphis, then to Kentucky in 2009, the spotlight widened to a national scope, but little was at stake other than rankings and pride.

This time is different. This is a national semifinal, with the winner moving on to the title game Monday night.

Make no mistake: Calhoun and Calipari don’t chat during the offseason. They are not friends now, and probably never will be. But there is no shortage of respect on either side.

“I think he is a battler and I think he holds the bar high and doesn’t accept anything except their best,’’ said Calipari. “He gets them to the point where they look at it and say, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ And he has talented players.’’

Calhoun was just as measured when asked about Calipari.

“John Calipari, who has always been an aggressive, incredible personality, has developed into a terrific basketball coach,’’ said Calhoun.

Pressed about their relationship, Calhoun simply shrugged and said, “I really don’t know him.’’

Calhoun and Calipari have taken different paths to reach this point, but both have paid the price for success: Each has been stained with charges of improprieties in programs they controlled.

Calipari and Rick Pitino are the only coaches to take three programs to the Final Four. Calipari’s previous appearances — with UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 — were vacated from the record books because of NCAA violations, though Calipari was not implicated in either case.

Calhoun took the most recent hit when he was handed a three-game suspension by the NCAA for a “failure to create an atmosphere of compliance’’ in the recruitment of Nate Miles. Calhoun will serve the penalty next year.

Butting heads The genesis of the Calipari-Calhoun rivalry goes back more than 20 years, when Calipari was in the early stages of building UMass into a national program. Calipari used a theme of, “We will play anyone, anywhere, anytime,’’ trying to schedule big-name opponents, including UConn.

Calhoun was irritated by the implication that the Huskies were ducking UMass.

“Calipari said he plays a national schedule, so obviously he doesn’t need us,’’ said Calhoun at the time. “We play Kansas and Duke, and we think those are pretty good teams. We’re happy with who we are playing now.’’

Calipari pushed and pushed, coming up with “Refuse to Lose’’ T-shirts as one gimmick, and in taking a shot at UConn, UMass fans wore “Refuse to Play’’ and “U-Scared?’’ T-shirts in UConn colors.

Calipari said a game between the schools would be good for New England basketball. Calhoun, a Braintree, Mass., native, played the New England card for all it was worth as he chided Calipari, who is from Pennsylvania.

“Johnny Clam Chowder telling us about New England basketball,’’ said Calhoun, who added that the UMass coach had never in his life said “cah’’ the way a New Englander would.

Calhoun also didn’t like some of Calipari’s communication techniques. He had difficulty accepting the different faces that Calipari used for different audiences. Calipari could be small-town, the kid from Moon Township, Pa. He could be streetwise. He could be New England folksy.

Calhoun’s persona was more direct. He was a Boston kid with no pretenses. Either you liked him or you didn’t. Calhoun wouldn’t — or couldn’t — change.

Calipari, it seemed to Calhoun, could change personalities the way cars on the Mass. Pike change lanes.

Taking it up a level The tension escalated during the recruiting of Marcus Camby, a Connecticut kid whom Calipari scooped up for UMass when the Huskies were slow to get involved.

Calhoun shrugged off the criticism, labeling such chatter from UMass supporters “mosquito bites.’’

Camby said he probably would have gone to Storrs if the Huskies expressed early interest — although UMass eventually paid a price, as Camby was at the center of the violations that caused UMass’s first Final Four trip, in 1996, to be vacated.

From that point, Calhoun simply ignored UMass, and Calipari moved to the NBA that fall to coach the New Jersey Nets before returning to the college ranks in 2000.

The rivalry became dormant.

Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, who was on Calhoun’s staff at UConn from 1994-2007, said UMass and UConn “had pretty much stopped playing each other when I first got there. We started playing them again when John left for the Nets.’’

Drexel coach Bruiser Flint was on Calipari’s staff at UMass during the Minutemen’s rise to prominence.

“[UConn] had some good teams, and we were starting to make some noise and Calhoun had been doing this a lot longer than we had, so we just stopped playing,’’ said Flint with a laugh.

“I remember one year we played them at our place in the [Curry Hicks] Cage and when the UConn team got to the gym, our fans started rocking their bus. We ended up losing the game, but I think [Calhoun] came out of there with the thought, ‘These guys are dangerous. Why do we need to play them?’ ’’

Flint said UMass reaching the Final Four before UConn also irked Calhoun.

“I think that was a big deal to them, too,’’ said Flint. “The funny thing was that the staffs from each school all got along. We were fine. It was the head guys who were having the problem.’’

Edge to their games Neither coach’s reputation is pristine, and there is as much passion from their critics as there is from their supporters.

“They really are very much alike,’’ said Flint. “They both will work to find any edge they can get.’’

“John and Jim are so competitive,’’ said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who knows both men well. “For Jim at the start, it was simply a matter of turf protection. John was an up-and-coming coach, and they had their recruiting battles.’’

Tranghese says the bad feelings have diminished considerably over the years.

“I think they both have incredible respect for each other as basketball coaches,’’ said Tranghese. “But it’s hard to be friends with someone whose brain you are trying to bash in. If there is one thing they have in common, it is an incredible ability to will people to do things.’’

Tranghese remembers when former UConn athletic director John Toner hired Calhoun from Northeastern.

“People weren’t doing handstands when Jimmy got hired,’’ said Tranghese with a laugh. “I asked John why he hired Jimmy and he said simply, ‘He’s got an edge to him.’ ’’

Which can also be said of Calipari, although Calipari’s edge is smoother than Calhoun’s. But there seems little question that both coaches have used that edge to their advantage this season.

Calipari and Calhoun have done things with their teams that few expected, especially defensively, which is one of the prime reasons both are still playing.

Calhoun has joked that his age, 68, is greater than the combined ages of fellow Final Four coaches Brad Stevens of Butler (34) and Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth (33). And he is 16 years older than Calipari.

In a conference call Monday, Calhoun said, “My advice for my three sons would be this . . .’’ Then he amended his statement, “My two sons and my problem child . . .’’

Calipari was asked if he saw an endgame to Calhoun’s career any time soon.

“I would be stunned when that day comes and he says, ‘I’m not going to coach,’ ’’ said Calipari. “It’s what he does. He coaches, he gets kids better, he wins. He creates an atmosphere within his team. But he’s as good as they get.’’

Calhoun, who has endured not only the NCAA investigation but health issues and some personal tragedies in the last few months, says his biggest challenge has been simply to remain who he is: The kid from Braintree with a desire to be the best basketball coach anywhere.

“I think the biggest thing is to keep being yourself,’’ said Calhoun. “I don’t think there is any change in playing in the Final Four or playing an exhibition game as the season starts. But the best thing you can do is be who you are as a coach and understand what got you there.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.