The mutual respect that now exists between Louisville coach Rick Pitino and UConn coach Jim Calhoun apparently took a while to develop.
Pitino's weekly blog entry on Thursday recalled the simmering rivalry between him and Calhoun in the late 70s and early 80s when both were at their first head coaching jobs at Boston University and Northeastern, respectively. Two ambitious but headstrong young coaches competing for recruits and exposure in the same city not surprisingly didn't get along well.
"I like him more today than I did back then, and the feeling was mutual," Pitino wrote. "We were runners back then, and in the mornings we would both venture out for our early run around the famous Charles River. Our paths would cross and both of us would drop our heads and totally ignore each other. I laugh today as I think back to those intense games. �Every game was a near brawl, but they were fun for all of us in a much smaller venue."
In the five years that Pitino spent at Boston University, he amassed a 6-3 record against Calhoun's Northeastern squad. The competitiveness of the two future hall of fame coaches rubbed off on their players to the extent that matchups between Boston University and Northeastern regularly included rough fouls, physical play and even an occasional fight.
"It was everything Carolina and Duke was, without the spotlight," Calhoun told the Hartford Courant in 2005. "But in the eyes of the coaches, assistants, players and the guys that really followed basketball, it was big. You had two relatively young coaches. He was younger. I was 28 or 29 when I took the Northeastern job [before the 1972-73 season] and we were fighting for a place that really didn't exist for us, on the Boston sports scene.
"But we just had bitter rivalries and then we decided we weren't going to speak to each other. I do remember the runs and nod. He's right. And that's all it was, a nod then we kept going. I mean it was clearly ... I think I can probably safely say this, that I haven't had a bitterer rival. I really haven't because he wanted to beat me so bad and I wanted to beat him so bad."
Both Pitino and Calhoun have mellowed somewhat, as evidenced by the Louisville coach's praise for his longtime rival in recent years. Not only did Pitino reiterate that he believes Calhoun building fledgling UConn into a national power is one of the greatest coaching jobs in college basketball history, he also expressed his admiration for what the Huskies did last season in winning the national title.
"Jim's coaching this year was a masterpiece," Pitino wrote. I am not sure why people outside of Connecticut have not talked more about it. I never felt after winning five games in a row and capturing the BIG EAST Championship his team could advance very far in the NCAA tournament.
"His third championship was his best coaching job."