Winning a Title is More a Beginning Than an End
Go Tigers! Memphis head coach John Calipari watches his team during a practice session for the college basketball Final Four. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Go Tigers!
Memphis head coach John Calipari watches his team during a practice session for the college basketball Final Four. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Go Tigers!

April 7, 2008

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - People outside the business think winning a national championship changes a coach forever. It does, just not in the way most of them expect.

Kansas' Bill Self or Memphis' John Calipari get the chance to find out for themselves Monday night.

"I don't think between 8 (p.m.) and 10 that one of us is going to get a lot smarter," Self said Sunday. "But people perceive it that way. At least I think the public perceives it that way.

"I don't buy into that. ... I don't think just because you're the last one standing that makes you a lot smarter," he added, "Probably just lucky."

That's a variation on a theme that's been bandied about the profession for decades, rarely more memorably than by former and current North Carolina coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams. The mentor had to sweat through seven Final Four appearances, and his star pupil five, before either finally came out on the other side of college basketball's championship weekend in possession of the hardware.

To be sure, it's always a torturous exercise listening to the best coaches of their generation wade through one painful memory after another, never daring to say there must be a trophy out there with their names on it. Instead, most recall the names of predecessors who fired up their imaginations and won just about everything else in sight, yet didn't even get this far.

"I think all of us are disappointed that a career has to be established or validated by a Final Four appearance," Calipari said. "We can name how many coaches that did not go to a Final Four. And in most cases, they weren't at a school that should get to the Final Four, but they coached better than anybody else in the country.

"You could go from John Chaney to Norm Stewart to Gene Keady. One is in the Hall of Fame, and the others should be. If you tell me, 'They never got to a Final Four, that's why they're not in the Hall of Fame,"' he added, "you're crazy."


 

 

Maybe so. Calipari is here for the second time, after arriving with UMass a dozen years ago. Self, despite reaching the Elite Eight four times with three different programs, is making his first appearance. Neither feels withering pressure from the administration or fans: Calipari because his Memphis program has only established itself as a player at this level in the past three seasons, and the faithful are genuinely happy just to be here; Self because he beat Williams, who abandoned Kansas for North Carolina a few years ago, in Saturday night's semifinal.

Even so, the grace period only lasts so long. Few understand that better than two-time national championship coach Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, who was discussing that very topic earlier Sunday with Lefty Driesell in the lobby of the coaches hotel in town.

"The man has never received the appreciation he's due for winning 800-something games, so I'd be silly to say it doesn't enhance the way people look at you. I was older than either John or Bill the first time I got there and was fortunate enough to win. I was closing in on 700 wins when we got the second (championship), and I got elected to the Hall of Fame the following year," he said. "I'd either be crazy or lying if I told you I believed it was a coincidence."

Calhoun upset Duke and Mike Krzyzewski for the first one in 1999, then never forgot something Coach K told him shortly afterward.

"He said you win it once, you want to win it more the next time. That's the crazy thing about it. The first time, you get to thank your family - your own family and all those players, assistants, equipment managers and everybody else in your basketball family who were with you on the climb from the bottom of your league to the top of the hill. And it's everything you dream about.

"But even if you get a breather from your fans and the media," Calhoun said, "you wind up more consumed about winning than ever."

Rick Pitino knows the feeling only too well. When he won the national championship at Kentucky in 1996, after beating Calipari in the semifinals, he recalled returning to Rupp Arena the next day. In the middle of a raucous celebration, he started crying.

"It was happiness, sure, and a new level of pride, but there's fatigue, too. All the air gets let out of your season so suddenly, just like a balloon. All those practices and games, all that striving and what's left at the end is that you're just gassed. You just want to close your eyes and sleep," he said.

"But Jim's right. As soon as you're back up and running, you want nothing more than to do it again."

Pitino came close the following year, losing to Arizona in overtime in the championship. Not long ago, he was clicking through the channels at home and started watching a replay of that game on ESPN Classic.

"When you lose, it doesn't hurt as much as you'd think right away, but when you get back to watching film, you realize all the things you could have done differently. We missed six free throws near the end of the Arizona game, or we might have won back-to-back national championships.

"And here I am, at home in a room by myself watching it again on Classic, and I can't help myself," Pitino said. "Every time one of my kids is at the line, even though I know how it turns out, I'm sitting there and almost yelling, 'Make it."'

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