Small-Town Coaches, Big-Time Game

By David Scott - March 29, 2008


HOUSTON -- They will share an ovesized stage on Sunday afternoon, underneath an enormous retractable roof in front of a mass of 30,000-plus fans and oh yes, a few folks from the little towns of Hickory, N.C., and Moon Township, Pa., will probably tune in.

Texas coach Rick Barnes and Memphis coach John Calipari will lead their teams into battle for the cameras of CBS on March's final Sunday and the winner will return to the Final Four for a second time (despite Calipari's appearance with UMass in 1996 being vacated). They will be two of the final six coaches still working toward the season's ultimate goal.

"It's a good day when a guy from Hickory and a guy from Moon, Pennsylvania get to be where we are today," said Barnes. "We've both been very blessed."

"Rick and I, we go way back," said Calipari, who, at 49, is four years younger than Barnes. "I was a camper and he was a counselor (when we first met). He was crazy then, I love him now but hate that we're playing where only one of us can advance. I wish there could be a tie and they take a fifth team. But he's as competitive as I am, and he's going to do whatever he can to win the game, and so are we."

Both have already done whatever they can to get where they are. They are two of just seven active coaches to have led two different schools to Top 5 Associeted Press rankings. Calipari is making his third straight Elite Eight trip and Barnes has been two of the past three years. Their teams plays fast, up-tempo and defend with enthusiasm. They are coaching lifers who live to coach.

Barnes started out as a head man at George Mason (in 1987, long before the school made its mark on the Final Four), then did six years at Providence, four at Clemson and has been at Texas for ten. Calipari started at UMass, jumped to the NBA with the Nets and for eight years has been at Memphis.

They are gym rats, students of the game and coaches' coaches. On Sunday, they will play for a place in history.

The two met at a University of Pittsburgh summer basketball camp 30 years ago when Barnes was driving a Volkswagen Beetle and just getting into coaching. Calipari was in college, about to transfer to Clarion State from UNC-Wilmington. It was the start of long friendship and two notable careers.

"Whatever I was doing when we met," Barnes said. "I could promise you, it was in style, okay?"

"He had long hair," Calipari said. "Like ponytail long hair."

"What I remember about that camp most of all is I was put in charge of the ball-handling station, which is probably the easiest thing to teach at the camp," said Barnes. "We had the groups rotating through and the youngest group came through, I think they were probably seven or eight years old and I started doing these ball-handling drills and I was amazed at how well they picked it up. And then I started doing some more things and making it a little bit harder and they amazed me. I started thinking, 'Boy, I'm going to be a pretty good coach here.'

"Then I find out there's a group called the Little Panthers that had been performing before the Pitt guys for a couple years and the lead guy was [current Xavier coach] Sean Miller. That's what I remember more than I remember John."

Barnes remembers the VW, too.

"It was a 1959 Volkswagen Bug that had a sunroof, and often times, I just had the hand brake, but it got me where I needed to go," he said. "And I drove it, that's what I drove."

Barnes, like Calipari, was driven too, by the smell of the gym and the prospect of teaching basketball for a living.

"I had gone through a tough time," said Barnes. "I had lost my sister, Sandy, to a car accident and she was very important to me, obviously, and I didn't understand. It was the first time I had probably ever stared death or looked at death that way, and I couldn't understand it, how an 18-year-old person you love could be gone. I went off the deep end and I was very lucky I had a group of teachers in junior high that Lord knows, for whatever reason, they took me under their wing, and they were hard at times. One thing they did, was they loved me, and after they got me turned around, because they were such strong role models, I said, you know, if I can't be a professional athlete, this is what I want to do."

Calipari also found direction from the teachers in his life.

"I grew up being a gym rat and being around coaches, and all I ever wanted to be was a high school coach," Claipari said. "The people that I always looked up to and still come to my games and still call me, were my high school coach es and college coaches. I looked up to coaches and teachers and that's what I wanted to do.
I respected what they did for other people. I respected how they did their jobs. That motivated me. I grew up in a household [where] you didn't think about being a lawyer and a doctor. You're thinking about payday was Friday. It's hard for families to see yourself as something special when the environment you're in doesn't breed that. You're not from a private school, you're not from a prep school and you're not from an Ivy League, it's hard. It's what I wanted to do but you learn to dream. One of the things my mother always said was, 'Dream big dreams.'"

Both men did just that.

"I don't know if it's [being from a] small town, but the teachers said, 'Hey, you can do anything you want to do if you're willing to work at it,'" said Barnes. "I think that when you grow up in a small town, there's an innocence about you that people tell you, if you set your dreams and you go after it, you know, it can happen. So sometimes you're a little bit probably naive in terms of just, hey, this is what I want to try to do.

"But along the way as you look back, you realized how lucky and blessed you've been with the people that you come in contact with, and how it takes so many people to help you. And John, again, I know the areas he's from, and I also know how hard he's worked. I know he's been willing to travel. He's been willing to get out of the box and go do things. That's what it took for him obviously to be where he is today."

On Sunday, the two friends who talk frequently during the season, will be on a raised wooden platform with millions watching and stakes as high as they get in their chosen profession.

"We've both been doing it a long time," said Barnes. "Everybody that plays [this weekend] knows what we are playing for. Once the game starts, believe me, you get lost in the game. I think that's what John feels, too. We all feel the same way."

Except on Sunday these two small town guys will be feeling it on the Big Stage of the Big Dance.

Posted by David Scott at 07:06 PM on March 29, 2008
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