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By LARRY VAUGHT
BIRMINGHAM — Former Kentucky athletics director C.M. Newton still does consulting work and was at the Southeastern Conference Media Days. Newton, who coached at Alabama and Vanderbilt, hired Rick Pitino at UK and also knows current Kentucky coach John Calipari because his son, Martin, worked for Calipari at UK before leaving to become athletics director at Samford.
Newton shared his thoughts on Calipari and Pitino.
Question: Is it good or bad for basketball in Kentucky to have Louisville and UK both so good at the same time with coaches as dynamic as they both have?
Newton: “I think it is good. It just separates Kentucky as a state from the rest of the world. To have both of them in the state, is a tremendous bonus for the state. Cal is perfect for UK. He is the perfect coach. He understands the landscape. I think Rick is the perfect guy at this time for Louisville. I wouldn’t have thought so when Rick first came to us at Kentucky, but I think now he is the perfect guy at Louisville.”
Question: Do they recharge each other?
Newton: “Sure. I think they keep each other … honest is the wrong word … but they keep each other really involved in basketball. Rick needs a challenge and so does John. Their challenge is provided in their own state.”
Question: Have they put all the national spotlight back on basketball in Kentucky?
Newton: “Yes. I don’t think there is any question about that. Then take what has been done in the women’s programs at both universities as well as the men. Louisville goes to the Final Four and Kentucky almost did last year. It’s amazing to me the kind of run that Kentucky has had in the two sports.”
Question: When you hired Pitino over 20 years ago, did you think he would still be coaching?
Newton: “No. A matter of fact, I tried to talk him out of going to Louisville at one point. I wanted Rick to take either the Indiana or Michigan job or some job in another league. I didn’t want him in the same state because to me he is the best coach I have ever been around period, and I have been around a lot of great ones. You can name them off. But Rick to me is the consummate coach. He is smart as heck.
“Now Cal is the perfect basketball coach in the modern era as I see it with this one-and-done business. I am not sure anybody else short of him … I am willing to say no one short of him could pull this off. Particularly with the academic restrictions on there. He is a master coach, master teacher. I think the state is just very fortunate to have both of them.”
Question: From an administrative standpoint, how do you view all Calipari does from telethons to trophy tours to alumni games to fantasy camps and more?
Newton: “He is a promoter and Cal promotes UK. Yet I am an old-school AD (athletics director), so I would probably have a problem with some of that. I know with Rick I told him there would be times he would have to take no as an answer. I never will forget when Pitino came to me after we renovated Memorial Coliseum and the locker room, and it had been the same I had as a player in the last 40’s and 50’s. Then he said he needed some exercise bikes to keep from pounding legs in practice late in the season so I can get the ready for the tournament. I thought that makes sense. But the kind of exercise bike he wanted cost $4,000 to $5,000 each. They had televisions and all that stuff. Then I thought that I wished I had been smart enough to do that when I coached, and I wasn’t. That’s why I say he is in a league by himself. He is very innovative, but he was willing to take no for an answer. I have never worked with Cal, so I don’t know if he would take no for an answer or not.”
Question: Is Pitino a better coach now than 20 years ago?
Newton: “Yeah. He has gotten better. I think the Celtic experience really humbled Rick in a good way. He came back (to Louisville) and he really wanted to coach basketball. He has done a great job there.”
Question: Could last year’s NIT season do the same for Calipari?
Newton: “I think so. If you look at Kentucky last year, until Nerlens Noel got hurt, they were on track to get in the NCAA. They were a shoo-in. When he got hurt, it went down the drain. Then losing to Robert Morris hurt not only Kentucky, but it hurt the whole league. That was unfortunate, but I am sure that got Cal really going again.”
Question: Who wins the Kentucky-Louisville game this year?
Newton: “I have no idea. The one with the best players. Players win games, not coaches. But they both have really good players and coaches.”