Kentucky coach John Calipari understands the task Rick Pitino faced when he began his seven-year tenure as coach of the Wildcats.
Kentucky was on probation following a major recruiting scandal and Pitino jumped at the opportunity to coach the Wildcats despite the circumstances that surrounded the program at the time. It turned out to be the best decision for both parties. The Wildcats needed Pitino and he needed the challenge of restoring order to one of college basketball’s most storied programs.
More than one-year following Pitino's ugly departure as coach at rival Louisville, Calipari reached out to Pitino and invited him to Lexington to help celebrate the school’s 1992-93 Final Four squad that set the foundation for others to follow during the remainder of Pitino’s tenure at Kentucky.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Calipari’s respect for those who have shared his seat in Lexington. Since his arrival a decade ago, the Kentucky coach has reached out to retired Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall, a beloved figure throughout Big Blue Nation.
It wasn’t always that way, especially following Hall’s retirement in 1985. Hall has been a regular at Kentucky practices and games until recent health problems have slowed down his ability to attend games and workouts on a weekly basis.
Calipari understands the task Hall undertook when he succeeded legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp.
“One of the happiest things for me is when I see how Coach Hall is treated here,” Calipari said. “He's treated like royalty. I love it when he goes out on the court. I love to see him in practice and I love how our fans treat him.
“My guess is, back in the day, they probably weren't as friendly, okay. But now they look at it and say, 'You know what, who would have followed Adolph Rupp? Who is stupid enough to do that?' He was. He went to Final Fours, won national titles. Think about it.”
Calipari said Pitino deserves the same treatment if and when he decides to make a return to Rupp Arena.
“He deserves to be able to, you know, get the respect from what he did here, and I think our fans would be great,” he said. “You know, he may not think that, but I'm convinced that if he came back, that the fans would be great to him.”
Members of Kentucky’s 1993 team offered nothing but praise for their former coach, who led the Wildcats to a sixth national title in 1996, followed by a runner-up finish one year later.
“(I have) nothing negative to say about Coach,” said Dale Brown, a guard on the 1993 squad. “I love that guy. He prepared me for life. … Great guy, man. He did great things for us. He’ll always have a special place in our hearts.”
It’s not known how long it will take for Big Blue Nation to embrace Pitino again, or even when the former Kentucky coach will make a return trip to Rupp Arena, but at least Calipari is willing to open the door and offer an open invitation considering the job Pitino did while he was in Lexington.
That’s what matters the most.