Bob Smizik: What if Calipari succeeded Howland?

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Final Fours are old stuff to John Calipari. He’s currently involved in his fifth. He’ll be going for his second championship Monday when his Kentucky Wildcats, who beat Wisconsin in a thriller last night, play Connecticut. This is the third time Calipari has taken Kentucky to the Final Four. He also reached the promised land of college basketball with Massachusetts and Memphis.

This story is about a Final Four where John Calipari, then in his third season at Memphis, was a spectator, although still a man on a mission. Days after Pitt lost to Marquette in a regional semifinal in 2003, Ben Howland resigned to take the job at UCLA. By the time the tournament reconvened the following weekend for the Final Four in New Orleans, the vacancy at Pitt was a hot topic.

Calipari, a Pittsburgh guy (Moon Township), a graduate of Clarion and a former Pitt assistant, wanted to come home. He wanted to move into the big time of college basketball, which was not Massachusetts, his first job, or Memphis. It was the Big East, where Pitt had become an important team.

Like most college coaches, Calipari was on site at New Orleans. He was too slick to publicly campaign for the job. But he quietly let it be known he was highly interested. It did him no good. Pitt never looked his way. There were reports Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese let Pitt know he didn’t want Calipari in the league. Calipari came with baggage. His Final Four appearance with UMass had been vacated. Years later, his appearance with Memphis also would be vacated, although in neither case was he charged with a violation.

Pitt went hard after Skip Prosser, also a Pittsburgh guy (Carnegie) but after a brief public flirtation, Prosser decided to stay at Wake Forest. The door was open for Calipari, but Pitt closed it on him and everyone. With the athletic directorship being vacant at the time, some of the top men in the university were involved with the job search and they did not want to be embarrassed by another coach turning down the job. Pitt went the safe route and the job was offered to Howland’s assistant, Jamie Dixon, who just weeks earlier had interviewed for a mid-major job but did not get it.

History tells us that Pitt has been highly successful with Dixon as coach. NCAA tournament appearances are so common they no longer satisfy the fan base. Pitt fans want to go where Calipari always seems to be. Pitt has never been there with Dixon. In 2009, Pitt reached the round of eight, but lost on a last-second shot to Villanova.

How would history have played out if Calipari had been offered and had taken the Pitt job?

There’s one thing Calipari could always do -- get the players. It might not have been the annual collection of all-stars he now brings into Kentucky every year, but he was an extraordinary recruiter. Then and now, he had a way with young men.

Pitt would have thrived under Calipari and might have made it to the Final Four. There’s no predicting those kinds of things, but Calipari did it everywhere he’s been and considering the magnet the Big East was for top players, it’s not unreasonable to believe he could have recruited the talent -- and coached it up -- to get to the Final Four.

Calipari, of course, has no regrets. He has what many consider the best job in college basketball. Pitt, too, would say it has no regrets. Pitt fans -- probably not.


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