Rick Pitino a Win Away From an Unprecedented Two Championships at Different SchoolsPosted by Chris Johnson on April 8th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
If you’re under the impression your life is generally going in the right direction, that you’re happy with your family and friends and place of employment, allow me to invite you to reassess: Rick Pitino is absolutely loving life these days. Wait — Don’t you mean will love? As in, if his Louisville team manages to top Michigan in tonight’s NCAA Tournament National Championship game?. Yes and no. A national championship would certainly lift Pitino’s spirits, just as it would Michigan coach John Beilein’s. But there are plenty of other reasons why Pitino could lose to Michigan, return home to a mildly disappointed fan base and still head into the offseason with a demonstratively optimistic grin.
First and foremost, in a storyline shrouded by officiating scandal and abusive coaching behavior, is Pitino receiving word over the weekend that he will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. There’s also the personal matter of his son, Richard Pitino, the beneficiary of Minnesota AD Norwood Teague taking a huge leap in coaching faith by hiring the younger Pitino after just one season at FIU. An alternative sporting exploit only adds to Pitino’s mini golden-age – his horse, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, thus making it one of the contenders in the Kentucky Derby, horse racing’s marquee annual event. All of those accomplishments are worth talking about, and Pitino will have an entire offseason to appreciate each in due measure. But the biggest prize of them all, one no other coach has ever accomplished in college basketball history, is something not all fans will enjoy the same way. In fact, one half of one hoops-obsessed state will absolutely detest what Pitino is on the precipice of claiming Monday night. If Louisville beats Michigan, Pitino will have become the first coach to win national championships at two different schools.
That alone is occasion to celebrate like never before. Convene a festive gathering of family and friends. Purchase a new race horse or three. Let your mind wander with this one. But the accomplishment cuts deeper than mere unique inter-team distinction. It strikes at the heart of the most passionate rivalry in college hoops (one of the most passionate in any sport), Kentucky and Louisville – and not just that. It strikes at the heart of the most passionate rivalry in college hoops in a year when the rivalry itself could not be more uneven. Let me explain.
You know the historical background. Pitino has been around the college coaching block, tested his talents at the professional level, and done it all over again. From Boston University to the New York Knicks to Providence to the Boston Celtics, you could say Pitino knows his way around the basketball coaching circuit. I failed to mention one school, which would be an egregious error on my part, were I not trying to underline Pitino’s greatest coaching feat to date. He won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996, an unbearably long (by UK standards) 18 years overdue from the last time (1978) UK stood atop the college hoops universe. Pitino was predictably raised to near demigod status, roundly commended after bringing UK its first taste of national glory in a tenure marked by close but missed – 1992: Elite Eight, 1993: Final Four, 1994: Round of 32, 1995: Elite Eight – championship opportunities.
It almost mirrors John Calipari’s early years at UK – the manner in which he brought John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to the Elite Eight in 2010, then Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones to the Final Four in 2011. One year later, he reached the mountaintop with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and his work was met with almost unified approval. Pitino was in a similar place, around long enough to leave UK with two national championship appearances (and one title) before tapping into his Boston area roots and taking over the Celtics. The #BBN has embraced both of these coaches, and some – sporadic as they may be, and dwindling by the day – still have a soft spot for all that Pitino accomplished during his brief stay in Lexington.
This is where things get prickly. Pitino returned to the college game and immediately drew the ire of UK fans by gladly accepting the head coaching vacancy at Louisville. That’s when the UK-UL hate officially left the purely historical and crossed into the sensitively personal. The antagonism was no longer just a decades-old feud rooted in civil disagreements and race issues and urban vs. country and Rupp and Crum. Pitino became the hot-button pivot point, the divisive blue-red straddler, the double-dealing, swash-buckling, sweet-talking, back-stabbing hoops troll. Pitino was doing this just to spite us.
The games surged on, Pitino living the other side and – but for a trying period a few years back involving a high-profile extortion case – enjoying himself every step of the way. Louisville was winning, including a Final Four in 2005, while all Kentucky could counter with in the post-2000 Tubby Smith-Billy Gillispie era was a pair of Elite Eights and Sweet Sixteens. Then the Wildcats leveled the playing field. They tabbed Memphis coach John Calipari to not only outshine Pitino at Louisville, but to dominate the college basketball landscape by annually sweeping the best high school talent and trusting Calipari’s coaching touch – the underrated if ridiculed ability to turn high school stars into selfless team-oriented dudes working together to elevate the collective over the individual – to reestablish the rightful order of things. Kentucky and everybody else. Royal blue and a palette of aesthetically distasteful clutter. Hegemonic dominance.
For three years, and particularly last season, it looked like Kentucky might have it their way, like Pitino would crumble under the weight of coaching fatigue and year-long pressure and a reputation-smearing lawsuit. Kentucky had all the players, all the talent, and there was nothing Louisville could do.
Until this season, when the model broke down, Kentucky ended its season on the road in the NIT at Robert Morris (Robert Morris! John Calipari won’t even play Indiana at Indiana anymore!), and Louisville’s coach is on the cusp of something extraordinary. This is a redemptive moment for Pitino, and not just because it’s always nice to be able to sit back and one day tell your grandchildren, why yes, I am the only man to ever win national titles at two different schools, now hush along and see that my Kentucky Derby horses are tended to.
More than that, it’s a retributive flash back to the past. It is the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry carried out vicariously through one polarizing individual. In a season when Kentucky has all but bottomed out, and Louisville has all but reached its pinnacle, Pitino needs this – not only for his personal credentials, but for what it could do to one of the most interesting and illustrious coaching legacies of all time. Besides, if Pitino can’t get Louisville over the top this season, all the positive emotions of an excellent 2012-13 season could be just as quickly wiped away. The Big Blue machinis temporarily out of order, but it will rise again in full force next season, complete with oodles of McDonald’s All-American talent and a year’s pent up #BBN frustration.
This is Pitino’s chance to adorn his resume with an unprecedented sequence of events. All those other things – that horse racing ordeal, his son’s coaching rise, the Hall of Fame induction – would have come as natural byproducts of a long and storied career. What Pitino can do tonight is special, and it means so, so much more than two national championships at two different schools. It’s state hate and hoops history and conflicting loyalties and it’s all packed snugly into one night, all there for Pitino to own.