Pitino Lashes Out Again: What’s the Real Reason Behind It?Posted by rtmsf on October 19th, 2011
Rick Pitino cannot help himself. When he’s hopping mad — like, really mad — he simply cannot save himself from himself. Whether it’s Larry Bird walking through that door, quips about health insurance, or convoluted references to famous Italian-American movies, the guy seemingly always manages to find the spotlight. Today’s Big East Media Day is only the latest example. When queried by USA Today about Syracuse and Pittsburgh’s pending move from the Big East to the ACC, the Louisville coach spouted off in a predictably self-righteous manner when he answered that the two schools should “show a little respect” after having “dated [the Big East] for 30 years.” The lack of the little voice of self-awareness in Pitino’s head is both astonishing and appalling, but that joke has already been made (here, here, here, here, here).
No, what we’re more interested in here is what is driving Pitino’s vitriol. If you read the entire series of quotes, the erstwhile coach takes shots at (in order): the ACC, his own dignity, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Clemson, Florida State, NC State, Wake Forest, Boston College, Gene DeFilippo, the Boston Celtics, and university presidents. That’s a substantial list for just a few seconds worth of soundbites, but it belies an anger that is eating at Pitino’s soul, causing him to seethe in ways we haven’t seen at least since the days of telling Celtics fans on talk radio that they need to get a life. Since Pitino is the master of coachspeak, he won’t tell us the real reason. But this is what we think.
Pitino sees the writing on the wall with conference realignment. He’s phenomenally angry with Pitt and Syracuse because he recognizes that their exits have contributed to the nationwide instability that will ultimately result in Louisville joining the Big 12. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. The Big 12, at least in its current format, still carries quite a bit of basketball weight on its shoulders. Kansas, Texas and Baylor are now Top 25 mainstays that are under relatively stable regimes; K-State, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma have had their moments; Texas Tech, Iowa State and TCU are bottom-feeders, but every conference will have those (hello, DePaul). Even with the losses of Texas A&M and Missouri (presumed) to the SEC, the league will pick up enough solid basketball schools to remain competitive, whether BYU, West Virginia, Cincinnati or others. Competition isn’t the issue.
The problem in Pitino’s head is that Louisville looking west for a new conference to join puts a major strain on his recruiting base. Since his days at Providence, and later, Kentucky and Louisville, Pitino’s recruiting base has been the northeast (and in particular, NYC). From Billy Donovan (ed. note: Pitino didn’t actually recruit Donovan, but he turned him from a benchwarmer into an All-American) to Jamal Mashburn to Rodrick Rhodes to Francisco Garcia to Earl Clark to Edgar Sosa, his star power has tended to hail from the Big Apple more often than not. This isn’t to suggest that the Pitino brand name can’t recruit elsewhere, because he most certainly can (Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Terrence Williams, etc.), but the Louisville coach’s bread has traditionally been buttered with a strong presence in his home area of New York and its surrounding environs.
When Louisville leaves the Big East for the Big 12, his recruiting pitch to NYC prospects of playing against all the great northeastern programs (Syracuse, Pitt, Connecticut, Villanova, Georgetown, etc.) and enjoying at least one trip per season back home to play in the mecca, Madison Square Garden, will have to change substantially. Instead of selling those players on moving south to a basketball-crazy state with the other fringe benefits in mind, he must now convince them that playing Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma (places they’ve likely never visited nor given much thought to) is just as interesting. There’s nothing like the magic of Kansas City in March, he’ll have to convince them. And if they’re lucky, he can tell recruits that they’ll be able to schedule a game in NYC at the Garden once every couple of years!
It’s just not the same draw, and he knows it. For a guy who came up in the Big East when it was still focused on basketball and who can today walk into just about any New York area living room with a tremendous amount of cachet as ‘their guy,’ he’s scared to death of losing that advantage — and for a guy like Pitino, fear morphs into anger very quickly. Pitino has been to one Final Four in his decade-long tenure in Louisville, and while his teams are often very good, they’ve rarely been great. If he is forced to become even more dependent on recruiting nationally and head-to-head against uber-recruiters like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and John Calipari, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Pitino could see his window toward winning that elusive second national title as narrowing.