UConn men's basketball program, Jim Calhoun have long history against Rick Pitino: 'Born to clash'

Many times over the years, fans have regaled Jim Calhoun with memories of the UConn men's basketball team's incredible, five-wins-in-five-nights run to the 2011 Big East Tournament title.

"People will say to me, 'I remember Kemba stepping back to win the Big East,' " Calhoun recalled. "Ahhh, not really."

Indeed, Kemba Walker's famous stepback buzzer-beater over Gary McGhee and Pittsburgh came in the quarterfinals, not one but two nights prior to the tournament finals.

"But that happens," Calhoun shrugged. "At Lake Placid, people don't realize beating the Russians wasn't the championship game. Same kind of thing."

Rather, UConn's historic Big East Tournament championship game victory came over Louisville and coach Rick Pitino — one of many memorable meetings over the years between the Huskies and the Hall of Fame coach.

On Friday, Pitino goes up against UConn once again in an NCAA Tournament first-round game as the Huskies face Iona at  MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y. (4:30 p.m., TBS). It will be the 26th time a Pitino-coached team will face the Huskies — and the first time in an NCAA Tournament game.

It will also be the first time Pitino faces UConn in nine years, since Louisville notched a 71-61 victory over the Kevin Ollie-coached Huskies in the AAC Tournament championship game in Memphis. A lot has changed since then.

Pitino was fired three years later following illegal recruiting allegations and other sordid details under his watch. He spent a couple of years in exile coaching in Greece before being hired by Iona, where he is now in his third and (by most accounts) final season at the helm.

Ollie, of course, was fired about six months after Pitino following alleged recruiting and other violations. Dan Hurley took over the UConn program in March, 2018.

And so, for the first time, it will be Hurley vs. Pitino on Friday afternoon.

"But if anybody's trying to make it out as Danny Hurley vs. Rick Pitino," Calhoun noted, "I don't think that's exactly what you want to do."

No, there is enough Pitino vs. UConn juice on its own. Pitino is 15-10 all-time against the Huskies. He was 0-5 during his five seasons at Boston University, then 4-0 in two seasons at the helm at Providence.

Kentucky never played UConn while Pitino was the Wildcats' coach from 1989-97. But after a brief, inglorious stint as the Celtics' head coach, Pitino returned to college to coach Louisville. And when the Cardinals joined the Big East in 2005, that meant plenty of Pitino-UConn battles.

Perhaps the most memorable for UConn fans was that 2011 Big East tourney title game, in which the Huskies jumped out to a hot start, survived Walker's foul trouble and a furious Cardinal comeback, and held on for a 69-66 victory.

Overall, Pitino went 11-5 against the Huskies while at Louisville, though he padded his stats the final two years, going 4-0 against Ollie. That included three double-digit wins over UConn in 2014. It started with a 76-64 win at Gampel, from which Ollie was ejected for yelling at the officials.

"Kevin Ollie, you don’t want to ever see (ejected)… Jim Calhoun, you want to see him get thrown out," Pitino quipped afterwards.

In the regular-season finale at KFC Yum! Center came an 81-48 beatdown that was one of UConn's most embarrassing losses in years. A week later, in that AAC Tournament championship game, UConn made things look more respectable in a 71-61 loss that, in fact, wasn't as close as the final score might indicate.

Of course, UConn got the last laugh by rolling through the NCAA Tournament (and avoiding a rematch with Louisville along the way) to displace the Cardinals as national champions.

The Calhoun-Pitino rivalry was a whole lot juicier. Calhoun, the Boston Irishman with an eternal chip on his shoulder, and Pitino, the New York Italian who exuded cockiness, were an incendiary pairing from the start when they first met during Pitino's first year at the helm at BU and Calhoun in his seventh season as Northeastern's head man.

"He's a guy from Long Island who had all the answers, and I'm a guy from Boston who had all the answers," Calhoun quipped. 

Pitino walked away from their first meeting on Jan. 9, 1979 with a 61-60 win and, in fact, wound up going 6-2 against Calhoun while the two were coaching rivals barely two miles apart in a pro sports town.

"When you're at BU and Northeastern, you're both trying to get the 11th headline in the city of Boston," Calhoun explained. "They only have 11 headlines, so in other words, one of us does, the other doesn't."

Calhoun got perhaps the biggest victory between the two, a 49-48 win in the 1982 ECAC North tournament en route to Northeastern's league title.

A few years later, Pitino was at Providence, where he beat Calhoun and Northeastern once. The following year, Calhoun joined him in the Big East at UConn, and Pitino beat the Huskies both times they faced them before bolting for the Knicks' head coaching job the following year.

While at Louisville, Pitino went 7-5 against Calhoun and the Huskies, their final meeting an 80-59 blowout in 2012 at KFC Yum ! Center. Heck, Calhoun's woes in that building continued a month later, when UConn was unceremoniously bounced from the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Iowa State in Calhoun's final games as Huskies' head coach.

Whatever tensions may have existed between Calhoun and Pitino have certainly waned over the years. 

"He's a terrific coach, his teams are going to win," said Calhoun, who got to know Pitino's son, Richard, who coached Minnesota while Calhoun worked at ESPN. "He's always been able to get players, he's always turned them into better than when they came. He doesn't have to be my best friend, but I will and do have great respect for him as a coach."

It's not unlike Calhoun's complex relationship with John Calipari, the current Kentucky coach.

"John and I actually see each other, if we're someplace, we'll have a drink, sit down and talk," Calhoun reported. "It's just the way things happened in competition. Rick is going to go at you. He's not going to back down from anybody. It's made him very successful. I'm not gonna try to charm Rick. He probably could charm (me), but he wasn't going to try to charm me."

When Taliek Brown, the point guard for Calhoun's 2004 national title team, was asked by Pitino to join his staff at Iona last spring, he wouldn't accept until running it by Calhoun first.

"He didn't have to do that, but I appreciated it," Calhoun recalled. "I told him, 'You've got an opportunity to leave a non-recruiting position for a recruiting position with a Hall of Fame coach.' To me, that was easy. And the other thing, Taliek: 'You'll win. He's a very, very good coach. Of course it's OK. Why wouldn't I send you to a really good coach? Dan's a very good coach, too, but why wouldn't I send you to a veteran coach who gives you another very strong resume (addition).'"

Calhoun will be in Albany for Friday's game, along with his sons, James and Jeff, and grandsons. Obviously, his allegiances lie with the Huskies.

"UConn is a better team, more size up front," he said. "I'm sure Rick will make it interesting. One thing we know, his team will be well-prepared. Conversely, when we open the court up, that's when we're at our best. So, it should be very interesting."

Another chapter in Pitino-vs.-UConn that could extend in future years if, as reported, Pitino takes over at St. John's.

As for Pitino-vs.-Calhoun, a pair of Hall of Famers, that is a thing of the glorious — sometimes confrontational — past.

"He's had a pretty good career, I had a pretty good career," Calhoun summed up. "We were two guys that were probably born to clash."

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges