When you reach the end of the hallway and step inside the big office, you begin to understand how it all happens. This is where the long, icy roads of New England end and big-time college basketball begins. The desk is wide enough for table tennis, and it doesn't take long to realize that you're looking across the net at the champ. The man can bring it like Forrest Gump. He doesn't actually speak. He opens fire. He hits you with a riveting assault of stories and snippets and fortune-cookie pearls of wisdom, and soon you're looking to sign that letter of intent.
Go out the door and into the gym, and you discover that you're not the first one to get swept up in all the energy. Bodies are flying. People are hitting the floor and sweating all over one another. This is practice? The players have been listening to this guy for three, four, five years, and still they hang on his words. Still he has a hold on them, which, from the first recruiting visit through the Final Four, is what the job is all about.
The success of a program is no surprise once you've sat in the big office of John Calipari at UMass or Jim Calhoun at UConn, two coaches who have energized one corner of the country.
"You've got to say one thing for John: I don't always agree with him, but he can coach," says Calhoun. "You just look at his team on TV and you can see how hard they play."
"I've had people come watch our practices and say, 'There's only one team I've seen that practices as hard as you guys, and that's UConn,' " says Calipari. "Jim Calhoun has rejuvenated that whole program, and now he's got them in the Top 10 almost every year. And that's what we're trying to do here at UMass."
Calipari has done something this season that Calhoun has yet to do at UConn. The Minutemen have gotten the No. 1 ranking in the polls. The best Calhoun has done is No. 2—once last season and again last week. UMass was 11-1 through Sunday. UConn was 12-0. Until this season a New England team had never been ranked first in the Associated Press poll, which began in 1949. (The UConn women also achieved a historic first, moving into the top spot in the AP poll after Monday's 77-66 win [page 83] over top-ranked Tennessee.) Up until this season the brightest moment in New England college basketball history probably came in 1947 when Holy Cross won the region's only NCAA title.
UMass and UConn are almost as close on the map as they are in the polls. And while there is no highway that cuts straight from Storrs, Conn., to Amherst, Mass., there is something else in between that adds a nice touch to the story: genuine tobacco farms. "Just like Duke and North Carolina," says Calhoun.
Only one difference: Duke and North Carolina play each other.
UConn and UMass first played in 1905, a 66-22 UMass victory. There is no winning coach listed in the media guide because there were no coaches, just players. Now it seems to be the other way around. Now Duke doesn't play Michigan. Some ex-coach TV announcer tells us that Coach K is taking on his pal Steve Fisher. As if they were going to play Parcheesi at center court. Now, of course, coaches have complete control.
UConn and UMass played 98 times until the rivalry was discontinued five years ago. Even after UConn joined the Big East in 1979 and UMass became part of the Atlantic-10 in '82, the two teams continued to play—although the Huskies dominated, winning 13 of the last 14, including two meetings between Calhoun and Calipari.