John Calipari grew up as a Pittsburgh Steeler fan so he was predisposed to root for Mike Tomlin as the team's coach. But something happened in 2007 that made the UK coach much more of a fan of his counterpart with the Steelers.
One day when Calipari was coaching at Memphis, the offensive coordinator for the football team stopped by to tell Cal that he was leaving to join the staff of the Steelers. And Randy Fichtner proceeded to tell Calipari about how Tomlin had come to work for the University of Memphis program back in the 1990's and had lived with the Fichtner family while coaching there. When Tomlin got his big break, his first call was to Fichtner, the friend who had helped Tomlin out.
"Randy comes in my office and said 'I just got hired by the Steelers'," Calipari recalled in his pregame interview last Saturday on the UK radio network. "'The first call he made was to me, to thank me for helping him'.
"I said 'what you position are you going to coach' and he said 'I don't know, he just said 'you're on the staff'," Calipari continued. "From that point on, I said 'I've got a meet this man'. Anybody that is that loyal, I want to be friends with."
And soon that friendship was born.
"Mike is a good friend and I'm a big Steelers fan. Marvin (Lewis) and I are friends and I'm a big fan of the Bengals but I grew up in Pittsburgh. If you grow up in Pittsburgh, you bleed that Steeler gold and you have that Terrible Towel--which I have in my office," Calipari noted.
Year before last, Calipari saw Tomlin's loyalty shine through another challenging circumstance.
"He sticks with his guys. When Ben (Roethlisberger) was going through his stuff (off-the-field issues in 2010), I went up to training camp. I wanted to see the rapport between those two and it was incredible," said Calipari. "Mike let him know that 'what you did was unacceptable but I still love you and you're still my guy'. That's what I believe you should be. These guys (pointed to his own players) do dumb things but I'm with them."
Later that year, Tomlin came to Rupp Arena, to see his first UK basketball game. The Steelers' coach says he gets to follow the games much more closely after the NFL season ends and he enjoys getting to see Calipari and his team in action up close.
Last Saturday, Calipari had Tomlin address the team after the Wildcats' gameday practice. And Tomlin talked to the players about rising to meet challenges.
"That's what this is all about--chasing greatness and not being afraid to aggressively do so. They've got daily reminders of what the standard is and that's one of the many things that attracts me to this place," Tomlin said in an inteview for "The Leach Report" radio show. "You're trying to uphold the standards. It's an awesome thing to be a part of. It's bigger than all of us and that's why you respect it so much."
So what impresses Tomlin about the way Calipari goes about his coacing job.
"I enjoy watching Cal instruct. I love the way he communications. He's a clean communicator. He's very deliberate and consistent with messages. He's a great teacher," Tomlin said.
What does the phrase "clean communicator" entail?
"Meaning what you say. Using a concise amount of words to express your thoughts. That enables guy to listen better," Tomlin answered, adding that enjoys getting away from his job for a few hours to watch a friend Calipari do his.
"More than anything, I just love watching young people chasing and living out their dreams. It's a special time in their life," said Tomlin. "And it's obvious in my profession, you know what you're looking at when you see it and you appreciate it."