Saturday, January 19, 2002

It's Cards, Cats and coaches

Pitino vs. Huggins adds spark to old rivalry

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ever since Rick Pitino was named Louisville's coach last March, University of Cincinnati fans have been looking forward to this.

        A new chapter of the UC-Louisville rivalry, which has extended through the Missouri Valley Conference, Metro Conference and Conference USA, begins today at Shoemaker Center.

        Pitino, the seventh-winningest active coach in the country (.739), squares off against UC's Bob Huggins, the sixth-winningest active coach (.742).

        “Whether it's Rick or Cal (Memphis' John Calipari) or Bobby (Lutz at Charlotte) or (Southern Mississippi's) James Green or whoever, everyone wants to make it like it's a personal thing,” Huggins said. “It's not personal. It's not any different than any other game.”

        This is the second meeting between Pitino and Huggins.

        Pitino came to Shoemaker with his Kentucky Wildcats in November 1990 and left with a 75-71 victory. He would go on to lead UK to three Final Fours and one NCAA title before leaving to coach the NBA's Boston Celtics.

        While Cincinnati has owned Conference USA since its inception in 1995-96, winning or sharing every regular-season title, a lot of preseason publicity the past two years has centered around Memphis and Louisville.

        Calipari, who had coached the NBA's New Jersey Nets, took over at Memphis and is in his second season there. His team is predicted to win C-USA's National Division.

        Pitino was wooed by several schools last spring before choosing Louisville.

        “He's better than a good coach, I think he's a great coach,” Huggins said. “The best thing that could happen for our league is to have Louisville back in the top 10 to 15 and Cincinnati stay in the top 10 to 15 and Memphis get in the top 10 to 15 — the way it once was.”

        Huggins and Pitino both say they've known each other for years, but never have been close.

        “I knew him early on when he was at Akron better than I do today,” Pitino said Friday. “I have a great respect for him, but don't know him personally real well.”

        Mick Cronin is Louisville's associate head coach and spent five years as an assistant to Huggins. He doesn't consciously focus on the similarities and differences between the two, but sometimes it's hard not to notice.

        “I'll tell you the common denominator — intensity,” Cronin said.

        “They're going to mold you into being the guy that they want you to be, to keep you sharp, so they know you're always looking out for the program when they're not there, training you to be responsible for everything that's going on.”

        With Pitino at UofL, the rivalry with UC should pick up steam.

        For starters, UC fans will not soon forget that Pitino hired Cronin away from the Bearcats. Also, in the minds of some UC faithful, he is responsible for calling a halt to a UC-UK agreement that called for four more games between the schools. According to a November 1990 Enquirer article, Kentucky asked UC to let UK out of the commitment because South Carolina and Arkansas were joining the Southeastern Conference, creating some scheduling problems. Then-UC athletic director Rick Taylor told The Enquirer at the time that two games still would be played.

        They never were.

        When asked about the Cincinnati-Kentucky series Friday, Pitino said: “We had so many rivals back then, I wasn't looking for another one. Kentucky fans were looking at Louisville as life-and-death, they were looking at Indiana as life-and-death, they were looking at Tennessee as life-and-death. And we didn't need any more lives-and-deaths.”

        With Huggins at UC and Pitino at Louisville, the series promises to be more competitive and compelling than ever. The Cardinals dominated throughout the 1980s under Denny Crum. UC had beaten Louisville eight straight times until a surprising UofL victory last season at Shoemaker.

        “My respect level for Cincinnati and for Bob Huggins is off the charts,” Pitino said. “He's a great coach. I think he's built a great program.

        “We've got to get our level of talent up to their level before we can say we're in their class. Right now, we're just not in their class.”


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