If you’re 40 or older and were watching college hoops in the 80s era, you know Rick Pitino coached point guard Billy Donovan and took Providence to the Final Four. If you’re in your late 20s, you know Coach Pitino, who’s impetuous and impertinent, led Kentucky to the national title in 1996. If you are growing up today, hooked on college basketball and the Cardinals, well, then you know that he’s taken Louisville to three Final Fours.
For 28 years of coaching at the college level, a well-dressed, charismatic Pitino, one of the most brilliant minds in coaching, is primed to become the first coach to win NCAA titles with two different schools. He’s been a mentor, a guiding teacher, a motivational speaker. He has elevated his program back to the No. 1 seed overall with his coaching methods by opting to run full-court press, forcing those who’d play against the Cardinals to turn the ball over, which usually turns into points by getting out in transition and running the floor well. It’s debatable whether he’s the son of college basketball — more complete and more polished than most coaches.
He’s a New Yorker, wearing his custom suits and walking the sidelines smoothly, with a professional hair transplant. Even now, at age 60, he’s cementing a legacy and will most likely reach the 900-win club, especially when he’s committed to strong defense, continues to replenish a roster of elite talent and condition his players, teaching them the basics and fundamentals of basketball. He always says the right things, always has been an extremely hard worker. As of today, he still has the winning touch, his unflagging work ethic and his sophisticated speaking skills.
And now that he’s back in the national title game, this time guiding Louisville, he has an entire basketball-crazed state salivating for a championship. It’s still amazing to think how far he’s come with help from those talented players he’s coached and sent off to the pros. The team he coaches now, the ones who will play Michigan in the NCAA national title game on Monday night, is far more talented and deeper than most squads he’s ever directed. It would be irresponsible, or cruel, or just absurd not to realize that he’s piled up lifelong accomplishments.
This is where he can enjoy life, embracing the best week. He’s more than just a basketball coach, he’s a father to his 30-year-old son, Richard, who was hired at Minnesota after just one year and 18 victories at Florida International University. And Pitino’s horse, Goldencents, won the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby and earned a spot for the Kentucky Derby. The man who has rejuvenated a much-publicized basketball program clearly is one of the best college coaches all time, representing Louisville and has done it with heady leadership, honesty, good recruiting and intelligence.
The fact that he’s fortunate to have Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who are arguably the nation’s best backcourt, gives Pitino the best chance to win. But Pitino’s group, seeded No. 1 overall, has already seen Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson, the unlikely heroes off the bench, making clutch shots and emerging into stars. It’s true what they say about Pitino. He knows how to win and reach the Final Four, no matter who he’s coaching or who he’s breeding. And his kids, as usual, are students of the game who eventually turn into studs.
Down 12 in the second half to a pesky Wichita State on Saturday, without the injured Kevin Ware, Pitino’s confidence uplifted his players to spark one of the greatest comebacks. Although Pitino’s signature full-court press decided the outcome for the Cardinals, Hancock and Henderson kept their hopes alive for a national title. It’s a journey back to a place he hasn’t been in 16 years, finally returning to college basketball’s biggest stage to bring back the national spotlight. Where he made his mistake was when he ditched college for the pros.
Had Pitino not coached in the NBA for six seasons, he could have been climbing the mountaintop as one of the greatest coaches alive and nearing 900 career victories. Pitino, in his own way, relinquished his humongous ego and erased the memories of his bleak tenure in Boston, where he was mediocre and humiliated, luring him back to the college level. But now, he’s a man of great humility, and he’s changing as a person following an extortion case that nearly ruined his marriage and family.
Pitino, meanwhile, believed in his team and saw winners in his players. No wonder athletic director Tom Jurich stood by his side, giving him a second chance, although Pitino was scrutinized and belittled. And amazingly, he pulled through and salvaged his coaching job at the University of Louisville, where he’s the god of the community and campus.
The road ends here. And Pitino can end it historically.