Watch UK basketball coach John Calipari’s post-Utah news conference
Jon Hale, Louisville Courier Journal
LEXINGTON, Ky. — As Kentucky honored its 1993 Final Four team at halftime of Saturday’s win over Utah, two of the most important figures from that squad were absent.
Leading scorer Jamal Mashburn was unable to attend the reunion. Neither was coach Rick Pitino, who tweeted earlier in the day a congratulatory message to his former players.
“Congrats 93 UK team!” Pitino tweeted. “Proud of you guys and love the hell out of you. Thx Cal for reaching out. Much appreciated.”
It should come as no surprise that Pitino chose to sit out the reunion and public recognition of one of his best Kentucky teams considering his career path since leaving Lexington. Despite leading Kentucky’s program out of the dark days of probation to a 1996 national title and 1997 runner-up finish before leaving Kentucky for the NBA, Pitino’s relationship with Kentucky fans was seemingly forever damaged when he returned to college basketball to coach archrival Louisville.
Multiple scandals at Louisville, including the Cardinals’ prominent role in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball that ultimately cost Pitino his job, have only further complicated the way he is viewed in Lexington.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose own sometimes tense relationship with Pitino has garnered no shortage of attention and speculation itself, says he wishes things were different, though.
“He was with family and he had things going on,” Calipari said. “I just said, ‘Look, you need to get up here. This will be respectful here.’ What that program did to change this back, we should recognize it. You may be mad he went to coach at Louisville. So, what? When he was here and when we needed this program on a different track he put it (there).”
Since being fired at Louisville, Pitino has published a book and visited several college programs in an advisory capacity.
Asked before the season if he would consider inviting Pitino to talk to his team, Calipari joked he would not because such an event would “put North Korea on the back burner” based on the media attention it would draw.
Still, Calipari made sure to celebrate Pitino’s role in revitalizing the program he now leads in honor of the 25th anniversary of the 93 Final Four.
“I thanked that group last night: You guys got this thing going,” Calipari said. “You guys did. Like I said, I’d like him to come back.”
Calipari pointed to the way fans adore former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who has formed a close bond with since coming to Lexington, as a model for Pitino.
“My guess is back in the day they probably weren’t as friendly,” Calipari said. “OK, but now they look at it and say, you know what, who would have followed Adolph Rupp? Who was stupid enough to do that? He was. Went to Final Fours, won national titles. Now, what Rick did, he deserves to be able to get the respect from what he did here.”
But would Kentucky fans agree?
“I think our fans would be great,” Calipari said. “I think they’re by all that. He may not think that, but I’m convinced if he came back the fans would be great to him.”
Informed of Calipari’s comments, Pitino expressed thanks to the Courier Journal.
“I appreciate John very much,” he said. “He has reached out to check on me multiple times.”
Courier Journal columnist Tim Sullivan contributed to this story.