NEW ORLEANS -- Louisville coach Rick Pitino insists reports of his personal rivalry with Kentucky coach John Calipari are greatly exaggerated because it makes convenient sports page fodder heading into their national semifinal matchup in the Final Four Saturday night at the Superdome. You can believe that if you like, but it's a lot more fun to imagine the coaches are an extension of a rivalry between schools that Pitino jokingly described Thursday as "pure hatred."
Where does the real truth lie? Well, when Calipari made a comment last October that suggested Kentucky didn't share its state with another comparable program the way, say, North Carolina and Duke do, Pitino didn't handle the snub well. "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid," Pitino said to CBSSports.com without naming Calipari. "If the shoe fits anyone, wear it."
And when Calipari complained last year about the Big East receiving a record 11 NCAA Tournament bids, Pitino made a remark about sending his son to work in the SEC for Florida coach Billy Donovan, a close friend, "to learn how to do things in a second-rate league, then get back to the big time" on his Louisville staff.
But with so much at stake now, the two coaches are playing nice, a lot nicer than fans of the two schools. Pitino and Calipari both enjoyed the report of a fight between two senior citizens who were receiving dialysis at the same treatment facility. The Louisville fan, it seems, slugged the Kentucky fan.
"I'm disappointed about that," Calipari said with a smile. "It's always been that way. I mean, it's Louisville and Kentucky. The thing with us is that, at this time of the year, rivalries don't matter. To our fans, they matter. But whether the school you're playing is 15 miles away or 1,000 miles away, you're trying to advance."
Calipari said the physiology of hatred for a rival is not good because it's close to fear. He also encourages Wildcats fans not to hate one team because he believes it generates bad karma.
The way Pitino sees it, geography is only part of the reason for the intensity of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry. Recalling the movie "Glory Road" about the all-black starting five for Texas Western that beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team for the 1966 national title, Pitino said, "You saw the depiction of the racial lines. It all started with the racial lines in Louisville-Kentucky. We're the 'minority' university; they're the university of the 'privileged,' so to speak."
That racial division ended when Kentucky named Tubby Smith as its first African-American coach. Building to his punch line, Pitino added, "Now the lines are no longer racially motivated. It's just pure hatred."
He was laughing.
The funny thing is that Pitino admired Calipari's teaching ability when he was a young basketball camp counselor, and as an alumni member of the hiring committee at Massachusetts, he gave Calipari his first head-coaching job. Their relationship didn't cool, Pitino said, until Calipari moved to Memphis and then Kentucky, the Cardinals' two biggest rivals.
"We're cordial," Pitino said. "Really, there's no animosity. It's just that we're competitors. We want to win, and we want to beat each other out for recruits. You can write whatever you want to write, but that's the truth."