Louisville Should Be Happy Joanne Pitino Isn’t Afraid to Speak Her Mind…Posted by mlemaire on October 25th, 2012
In 2001, when Michigan and then-athletic director Bill Martin announced they had hired then-Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker to try and rebuild the turmoil-riddled program in Ann Arbor, the fan base and the state’s pundits all hailed the move as an excellent one. Of course they probably would have been singing a different tune about the decision if they knew how close Martin had been to landing then-failed Boston Celtics’ coach Rick Pitino. Of course no one knew how close Pitino was to ending up with the Wolverines until the now-Louisville coach shared the story with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski on SiriusXM radio earlier this week.
According to Pitino, he had already signed an agreement to become the next coach at Michigan and had even managed to convince his wife the move was a good one. Everything was basically finalized, that is until Martin decided to go play squash and tell his secretary he didn’t want to be disturbed; at that exact moment, another team from Kentucky came calling and Pitino’s wife felt the pull of familiar territory. In fact, let’s just let Pitino tell the story himself.
I was living right on Thom Avenue in Boston, and she came up and threw her book at me, and said, ‘You know, you’re afraid to go to Kentucky.’ It’s once every two years, what’s the big deal? They’re going to boo you, they’re going to yell things, for one game. What is the big deal? You don’t know anybody at Michigan, you’ve never been there, and now you’re going to pass on all your friends and your children, you’re older son, who’s settled down there, why would you do that?’
You always say in this book you wrote that you’d rather live one day as a lion than 1,000 as a lamb.’ She said, ‘I didn’t know I was married to a curse word, and a lamb.’ She went down the stairs. She said, ‘I don’t understand any of this. The game of life is more important than the game of basketball. Your children are (in Kentucky), they grew up there. We need to go back to Louisville, and (athletic director) Tom Jurich is the guy you need to work for.
I tried to call the AD at Michigan between 12 and 1. I had a false name I would give him, a fake name, and he would call me back. I couldn’t get a hold of him because he was playing squash. The secretary said he demands that he doesn’t get interrupted unless it’s an emergency, and if you want, you can leave a voicemail. I left a voicemail and went to Louisville, and I’m really happy I did.
I am sure Cardinals’ fans are happy he chose to return to Kentucky too even if his wife may not be happy with the company he kept upon his return. And it probably couldn’t hurt for fans to send Pitino’s wife a gift basket or two considering her husband has built the program back into a perennial national contender, winning 262 games in 11 seasons, including four trips to the Elite Eight and two trips to the Final Four.
As for Michigan fans, they probably wish that their former athletic director wasn’t so committed to his squash game (although, to be fair, Pitino said he signed an agreement, so Martin probably didn’t expect him to back out so abruptly) because while Amaker did bring the program out of its dark pit and raise its talent level, his teams never lived up to some of their lofty expecations and also never made the NCAA Tournament in his six seasons. The bitterness and anger would probably be exponentially worse if the program hadn’t replaced Amaker with John Beilein, who has built on Amaker’s foundation and turned the program into a consistent winner.
The lesson of this story is that coaching searches in the cut-throat world of Division I basketball are like the Wild West. There may be unspoken rules and courtesies, hell there may even be a signed agreement in place, but that doesn’t mean anything when ego, family, and especially money are involved. Former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin learned this the hard way and is probably glad he is retired and doesn’t have to influence these searches anymore. Hopefully some of the younger and greener athletic directors took notes, because it could happen to them soon.