LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Sport is relentless in its sleaze, whether it's Mike Leach's twisted way of handling a player's concussion or the frightening allegation that Gilbert Arenas and a teammate flashed guns at each other in an NBA locker room -- firearms, not forearms -- in a surreal flare-up over a gambling debt. Happy New Year, huh?
Still, it was hard to top Saturday in Rupp Arena as a crossroads of wrongdoing. On the Kentucky bench, in a dark pinstriped suit and slicked-back hair, was John Calipari (right), the only college basketball coach ever forced to vacate two FInal Four berths at two programs over two decades because ineligible players were used. And on the Louisville bench, in a gray suit and slicked-back hair, was Rick Pitino (left), the only college basketball coach ever to be caught in an after-hours, extramarital sex romp at a four-star Italian restaurant, though the table utilized by Pitino and Karen Cunagin Sypher at Porcini since has been removed -- just in case you wanted to sit there with a date and order the linguini with clam sauce.
"He's Italian. Our coach is Italian," Louisville guard Preston Knowles famously told USA Today. "It's the big old clash of Italians."
Oh, Tony Soprano would be so proud.
And if he was watching on national TV, Soprano would have been all jacked up upon seeing a near-brawl, full of players who were trash-talking and shoving, in the opening minute. The lead-up to tipoff was especially riveting, with Kentucky students taunting Louisville players early in warmups with brilliant observations such as, "Sosa, where's your parole officer?'' and "Hey, short white boy, you won't play. Go home.'' When Calipari took the court, he immediately tried to take the high road and locate Pitino, reflecting his attitude the day before when he said of the new rivalry: "I respect (Pitino), we've gone nose-to-nose many times in the NBA and in college, and they were all good games. They were all wars, and I would expect this is going to be the same. But this is about Kentucky players and Louisville players. They've got terrific players who are good people, and so do we. I think it should be about them. I just keep coming back to that."
But when Calipari wandered to the Louisville bench, only the assistant coaches were there. Pitino waited until the last minute to enter the arena, to raucous boos, and Calipari had to venture downcourt a second time to briefly shake Pitino's hand and exchange pleasantries that most likely were plastic. The game started, and Louisville's Edgar Sosa, already sick of the crowd, motioned wildly for the fans to bring on their noise and barbs. All of which set up a tumble of several players to the floor only 45 seconds into the first half, prompting officials to delay the game and assess three technical fouls for unsportmanlike conduct -- two to Louisville's Jared Swopshire and Reginald Delk and the other to Kentucky freshman DeMarcus Cousins. The Louisville players stood beside Pitino, shooting stares at the Kentucky players, who stood by Calipari, shooting stares at the Louisville players.
Who knew that Ultimate Championship Fighting was coming to downtown Lexington? Who knew that Pitino would try to turn the game into a street war? Who knew that Cousins, a big man loaded with raw potential, would fire a forearm at Swoopshire's head and somehow avoid an ejection? And who knew that Louisville, which relies on outside shooting, would miss 18 of its first 19 shots and let Kentucky survive its own early jitters? The result was a rough, clumsy, ugly 71-62 victory for the WIldcats -- rough as in 51 personal fouls and five technicals, clumsy as in 37 combined turnovers, ugly as in clanked misfires for both sides. It required John Wall, the spectacular freshman point guard, to bail out Kentucky with six straight points after Louisville took its first lead with 9:51 left. And it enabled Calipari to quickly trump Pitino in what will be a defining rivalry for both coaches.
Afterward, Pitino raved about the player who likely will be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. "When a game gets tight like that, when the game is on the line, it just shows how great Wall is,'' Pitino said. "It didn't faze him.''
Said Wall, who had turnover issues in the first half but scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half: "I'm playing at another level I never thought I could play at. I always played good when I was in high school, but playing for Calipari, he's going to take you to another level and get you better. I thought I was at the top of my potential in high school. I'm nowhere near it.''
As for Calipari, he chose to dutifully defend Cousins, his young center, as only he can. "I knew they were complaining that DeMarcus got away with something. Let me tell you, those officials did a great job of getting control of this game,'' said Calipari, laying it on thick because they missed the call that could have doomed his team early. "This game could have been all fistfights. It was a game for men. But that officiating crew will be working at the Final Four; that's how good they are.
"(Louisville) tried to bait DeMarcus. And he did such a great job of keeping his composure. At Memphis, we had a player named Joey Dorsey who other teams would try to bait, and Joey would lose his mind. We told DeMarcus that, and he didn't lose his mind. Now, Eric Bledsoe lost his mind in the first minute. We had to sub him and tell him to relax, that we were playing basketball and we weren't fistfighting. But DeMarcus did not lose his mind.''
"It was intense out there. I was just going for a loose ball on that play. I don't know anything about a forearm,'' said Cousins, who wound up with an impressive double-double of 18 points and 18 rebounds. "They tried to get physical with us, and we got physical with them. They tried to rough us up.''
That the game was at Rupp Arena, where Pitino once was a god after resurrecting a scandalous program and returning the Wildcats to national-championship glory, meant the story also extended to the stands of a 23,000-seat shrine. College students can be a crude bunch, and while the Kentucky kids never have been as dead-on creative as Duke fans or as caustically notorious as those at Maryland, I found it fascinating that Calipari would issue a pre-game plea for civil crowd behavior. Wouldn't he want every imaginable insult fired toward Pitino, as a reminder that Coach Cal is the big thoroughbred now in the Bluegrass State?
"The only thing I'm asking in this game is let's just show the country that we are the classiest fans in the country," Calipari said. "Please, no posters. Nothing. No chants. Nothing. We don't need it. Let this be about these kids. This is about our players and their players. It's not about the coaches.''
Right. And Calipari will be donating his entire $31.6-million contract to college entrance-exam awareness. He didn't have the power to stop all anti-Pitino reaction on a frigid afternoon; there were a few signs and comments. But for the most part, after the atrocious shots at Louisville during warmups, the fans behaved. There was one "Kar-en Sy-pher!'' chant during a timeout; otherwise, UK fans were into the action. Thirty minutes after the game, when Calipari walked out to the court to do his radio show, at least 8,000 folks remained in the arena. He saw it as a perfect opportunity to win them over with more mush and gush.
"What do we have, 9,000 still here for a radio show? Some up there in the upper deck? We have more people for a radio show than most programs have for games,'' he said, as the people roared. "Let me tell you something: We have the classiest fans in the country. I asked in a nice way that we be classy today. And you know what? I didn't see one poster or hear one comment (about Pitino). I don't care if we go on the road and they say stuff about us or about me. We don't do that here.
"We don't have to. We have the greatest college basketball program in the world.''
Pitino, to his credit, laughed off the scene, saying he was yelling at Sosa during the Sypher chant. He'll have to dig deep for a sense of humor all season, because abuse awaits him everywhere. "I think two or three people missed me,'' he cracked.
In truth, never has a basketball game been more about the coaches. They are two men who, by the way, aren't particularly fond of each other after an early friendship that found Pitino helping Calipari land his first big job at Massachusetts. When Calipari made his demand for no posters or chants, not once did he mention Pitino's name. And Pitino made his grudge known a few years back when he said of Calipari, "I don't pay any attention to John when it comes to begging for officiating. I have heard him since the UMass days talking about the officials. I pay no attention to anything he says. When people start talking about officials, you know they have some psychological problems.'' Psychological problems? On several occasions, the two have clashed amid officiating controversies in Conference USA -- Calipari accusing Pitino of baiting an official into calling a technical foul on Calipari for being outside the coaching box ... a stink when Calipari's Memphis team shot 48 free throws in a win over Louisville, prompting Pitino to accuse Calipari of influencing officials before the game.
Talk about amnesia. Didn't they once think so highly of each other, back in 1988, that Pitino scolded a UMass board member for listening to a negative critique of Calipari? "You can't change your mind because one coach calls and says these things. That means he's worried,'' Pitino reportedly told the board member. "If he's worried about this guy, then that's a good thing." Pitino even agreed to pay $5,000 to UMass to close the difference between Calipari's $63,000 salary and the $58,000 that the school had in the hiring budget. Those days are long gone, though the perception continues to live that the 50-year-old Calipari is Pitino version 2.0, younger, hungrier and better than his 58-year-old rival.
There is a sense that Pitino ultimately won't survive the sex scandal in a middle-sized town that draws its identity from Louisville athletics and is erecting a beautiful riverfront arena. Not only is the case embarrassing -- really, a table at an Italian restaurant? -- but it isn't over. Cunagin Sypher, who married PItino's close friend after their sexual fling, has pleaded not guilty to charges of allegedly trying to extort millions from Pitino and lying to the FBI. Thus, her attorney expects the case to go to trial. That means there's potential for more explosive revelations, though it's hard to believe the details could be any steamier or damaging to Pitino.
It will be even harder for him to remain in the job if Kentucky fares better on the court and in recruiting. Right now, thanks to Wall, the tallest team in America (average height: 6-7) and a roster oozing of youthful and veteran talent, Calipari is winning the Commonwealth battle. The victory was more proof that he's already on a Final Four plateau with a 15-0 record and the nation's No. 3 ranking. "We know how great they are and we know their abilities," Pitino said. "They are not the tallest team I've seen at Kentucky, but they are the fastest team and the most athletic team I have seen at Kentucky.''
Said Wall, whose acrobatic layup late in the first half was memorable: "You can just look at a newspaper or message board and see the rivalry. We have been going out and people have been saying, 'I don't care what you do, you could lose every other game, but just beat Louisville.' We know it is a big game. We are every team's Super Bowl. We have to be ready to play.''
They have been ready, to the point the Wildcats can be projected as a team that will keep improving and contend for the Final Four. Louisville? The Cardinals are unranked with a 10-4 record, including losses to Western Carolina, Charlotte and UNLV. Yes, as Pitino is quick to tell the media, Louisville took in $23.5 million in operating revenue in 2008, making it the top revenue producer in college hoops. And in the last five years, his teams have advanced to the FInal Four and two Elite Eights while Kentucky stumbled under Tubby Smith and made a bad hire in the since-deposed Billy Gillispie. Yet I keep wondering how Pitino plans on entering a recruit's living room and selling his program to a kid's mother. Isn't she going to ask Pitino why he didn't at least get a room that night? When he claims Louisville basketball hasn't been adversely affected by the scandal, the man is in some sort of denial.
"I think what you all fail to realize is even in recruiting, it hasn't come up one time in one phone call,'' said Pitino, who is under contract until 2013 and is due to receive a loyalty bonus of $3.6 million this year. "Players and recruits -- all they're interested in is their future, making their lives better for their families someday, becoming the best players they can possibly be. Winning games, that's really what they're tuned into."
The best players can do that up the road at UK, where the coach may vacate Final Four berths but presumably remains happily married. What Calipari does best -- recruit -- only will be helped by Pitino's problems.
"There will be no more distractions. I owe it to my team,'' Pitino said. "There may be, for a few hours one day, a personal distraction on my part, but there won't be any team distractions."
Meanwhile, Calipari has spent recent days deflecting a rip job by ESPN commentator and former coaching legend Bob Knight. If Pitino's issues are courtrooms and trysts, Calipari still is trying to live down his rep as an integrity-challenged coach who doesn't play by NCAA rules. 'We've gotten into this situation where integrity is really lacking, and that's why I'm glad I'm not coaching. You see, we've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation, and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that,'' said Knight, who was incorrect when he said UMass was placed on probation.
Calipari, fueled by UK love everywhere he goes, has a way of softly ducking away from criticism. "I don't agree with a lot of what is said,'' he said. "I am not the worst human being in the world.''
You wish every local hoops rivalry could be as scandal-free as North Carolina vs. Duke. Or Kansas vs. Texas in the Big 12, which will be this season's showdown to watch, perhaps as many as three times. But through time, the state of Kentucky has been obsessed not so much with the methods behind a program as the winning itself. When you contend for a national championship here, they tolerate every wart. When you stumble and fall, as Gillispie and Smith did, they want you gone.
Is Rick Pitino next? One thing we know: John Calipari, at the moment, is safer than any coach in Kentucky history. The man has yet to lose a game. He's sleaze-proofed.