On March 31, 1997, Rick Pitino was one game from a second consecutive national championship, and Title No. 2 would have been a triumph of coaching. Kentucky had sent four players from its mighty 1996 team to the NBA and had seen Derek Anderson, its second-leading scorer, lost to injury, and still it stormed through the NCAA tournament.
Then his Wildcats were upset by Arizona in overtime, and Pitino never coached another Kentucky game. He left for the Boston Celtics, certain that holding two lottery picks in the ’97 draft would yield Tim Duncan at best or Keith Van Horn at worst. Pitino wound up with neither. He resigned in January 2001, having gone 102-146 with the Celtics.
Sixteen years later, Pitino gets a second chance at Title No. 2. Louisville faces Michigan in the NCAA final tonight, and his Cardinals bear their coach’s imprint. They’re smart and skilled, fearless and unrelenting, and their excellence is further proof that Pitino is among the best college coaches ever. And yet: He has half as many national championships as Billy Donovan, his brightest protégé.
Had Pitino stayed at Kentucky, he’d have had three or four by now. (The 1998 Wildcats won it all under Tubby Smith, another former Pitino assistant.) He’d have been in the exalted company of Mike Krzyzewski, but Krzyzewski has been at Duke since 1980. As Pitino noted Sunday: “I was always looking to move up that ladder.”
Pitino’s story could have been a tale of massive promise not quite fulfilled, but it isn’t quite. In moving, Pitino learned. In learning, the famous coach became a better man.
During the Midwest Regional, Pitino twice used a word that wouldn’t have applied to the younger Pitino – humility. The younger Pitino acted as if he hadn’t just invented the sport but perfected it. He paid no heed to Kentucky’s tradition and could barely bring himself to mention Adolph Rupp’s name. Before the 1995 Southeast Regional final against North Carolina, he said: “Both teams have great coaches,” equating himself with the legendary Dean Smith.
Pitino agreed to coach Louisville in 2001, having spurned Michigan at his wife Joanne’s impassioned request. He arrived for his second Bluegrass tour a changed and chastened man. Adoration, he found, wasn’t transferable. Kentucky fans rechristened him “Traitor Rick,” and at his first game as a visiting coach in Rupp Arena someone held up a sign reading, “Joanne, we never liked you, either.”
“It took a long time to gain humility,” Pitino said. “If I had one regret in life, it’s that I wasn’t more humble at an earlier age. I preach to any young coach who comes along and I tell my son (Richard, just hired by Minnesota), ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I made.’ He said, ‘Did you press too much?’ I said, ‘No, I wasn’t humble enough.’ “
Then this: “I’ve never scored a bucket in my life at the collegiate level as a coach. When you fail with the Celtics, suddenly the full-court press didn’t get you over the hump, and the 3-point shot and the motion didn’t get you over the hump. You truly realize why you win and why you lose.”
This is Pitino’s 12th season at Louisville. For all the inspired work he did at UK, and at Providence and with the Knicks before that, only in the ’Ville has the wanderer found a home. Indeed, he’s so secure that the seamy story involving Karen Sypher – she met Pitino at a restaurant in 2003; they had sex then and there; she got pregnant; he paid for her abortion; she tried to blackmail him and was convicted of extortion – never threatened his job status. If anything, having to testify in federal court was another lesson in humility.
At 60, Pitino is no longer a young man looking for the next main chance. Though his hair remains suspiciously black, he relishes his his role as greying eminence, having gone out of his way to laud the coaches of the teams Louisville has faced in this tournament – including Cy Alexander of North Carolina A&T, which the Cardinals beat by 31 points.
There was a time when Pitino acted as if he was the only coach who matters, but here he is: On the brink of Title No. 2, about to be named Monday as a Hall of Fame inductee, his son a newly minted head coach and his horse Goldencents having won the Santa Anita Derby on the same day Louisville surged past Wichita State. And this is what the recovering egomaniac said Sunday: “When good things happen, I don’t really embrace it. I just say it’s a lucky day.”