It’s good to be Rick Pitino these days.
Top-seeded Louisville is playing for the national championship, giving Pitino a chance to be the first coach to win titles at two different schools. His son, Richard, is the new Minnesota coach. One of his horses has a spot in the Kentucky Derby after coming from behind to win the Santa Anita Derby.
Oh, and Monday morning, the Hall of Fame will make it official, announcing Pitino as one of its newest inductees.
“You take it in stride,” he said Sunday. “I try not to ever get too low. I fight adversity as hard as I can fight it, not get too low. When good things happen, I don’t really embrace it. I just say it’s a lucky day.”
The Cardinals (34-5) play fourth-seeded Michigan (31-7) on Monday night, with Louisville an early 4 1/2-point favorite.
Pitino has come a long way from the brash coach who led Kentucky to the national title in 1996. A long way, even, from the coach whose buttoned-down reputation was left in tatters following an extortion case four years ago that exposed the messy details of his private life. He’s learned humility late in the game, and he — and his players — are all the better for it.
“If I had one regret in life, it wouldn’t be what you think,” Pitino said. “It’s that I wasn’t more humble at an earlier age.”
The comeuppance began in Boston.
Pitino was the hottest commodity in college coaching when he went to the Celtics, following that ‘96 title and another trip to the championship game the next year. But assembling a college team is different than doing it in the NBA, and Pitino was 102-146 in three-plus seasons. The most lasting memory of his tenure was not a playoff run, but a postgame rant in which he chastised Celtics fans, “Larry Bird is not walking through that door.”
He returned to the college ranks, taking the Louisville job in the spring of 2001. Six months later, his brother-in-law and best friend died in the Sept. 11 attacks, a loss that cut almost as deeply as the death of his infant son 14 years earlier.
And in 2009, he was forced to admit he’d had a sexual encounter with a woman who later tried to extort millions from him.
“I can give you some years where it went the other way,” Pitino said Sunday when someone asked if he was leading a charmed life.
But the pain and humiliation ultimately served a greater purpose.
“For the first time in my life, I thought about maybe packing it in and doing something else three years ago,” Pitino said earlier in the tournament. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that. I’m going coach as long as I can coach, but I’m going to make one big change. We’re going to work just as hard as we’ve ever worked, if not more, but we’re going to have a blast doing it.’
“It’s worked very well.”
Make no mistake, the temper is still there. In Saturday night’s game against Wichita State, Pitino was lucky not to get teed up for as much as he was barking at the referees and stalking onto the court. He rips into walk-ons and starters alike, and his battles of will with Russ Smith are approaching campus legend.
But his criticism is no longer so biting, and there’s affection beneath those barbs.
When he pokes fun at Smith — a frequent occurrence — Smith rolls his eyes and shakes his head. He refers to his team as family, and those aren’t empty words, forward Stephan Van Treese said. His office door is always open, and even freshmen feel comfortable enough to go in and talk with Pitino about things large and small.
When Kevin Ware’s tibia snapped, the bone protruding through the skin, during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final, those were real tears Pitino had to wipe away. Though the team returned to Louisville that night, Pitino and Richard, who’d recruited Ware when he was an assistant to his father, stayed in Indianapolis to be with the sophomore.
With the youngest of his own kids not much older than his players, Pitino tries to stay current, too. He’s a big fan of Pitbull, and knows enough about Twitter to tell his players to stay off of it. (He wasn’t so familiar with Instagram, but Peyton Siva might have spoiled that one.)
“You always hear about him being hard on his players but, to me, he’s a soft guy,” Siva said. “He’s still tough on us, but he’s more enjoyable off the court. He seems more relaxed. He seems to have more fun with things. ... On the court he’s the most focused guy ever, but off the court he’s the most loveable guy ever.”
It’s no coincidence that Pitino’s new outlook has translated into one of the best runs of his career. The Cardinals have won 30 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, reaching the Final Four each year. The 34 wins this season is a school record, and the 15-game winning streak is the longest in a decade.
If Louisville wins Monday, the Cardinals would be the eighth school with three or more NCAA titles. Pitino would be the 14th coach to win multiple titles, but the first to do it at two different schools.
“We know what a single game means to coach Pitino, let alone the national championship,” Siva said. “It would be a great milestone for him, but a great milestone for us, as well.”
Pitino insists the personal accolades mean little. It may have taken a while, but he’s learned the best things in his life and career are shared.
“Everything we do is about the team, about the family,” Pitino said. “I want to win because I’m a part of the team.”
It’s good to be Rick Pitino these days.
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