Almost two months removed from his 60th birthday, Rick Pitino's once-small window of remaining in college basketball coaching ranks has been thrust open with competitive fire reminiscent of his younger days. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
The Big East as everyone knows it has changed indelibly. Jim Calhoun has retired, and Jim Boeheim will depart for the Atlantic Coast Conference following the conclusion of this season. Yet for all the realignment talk and replacements of one program with another, one constant remains in what continues to be regarded as one of the strongest conferences in college basketball, a coach who has made more than his share of fans with his brutal candor and a pull-no-punches style that just somehow makes people appreciate him despite how controversial the subject matter at hand may be.
Rick Pitino may have just celebrated his sixtieth birthday on September 18th, but the Louisville head man is not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, Pitino, once notoriously tight-lipped in any conversations regarding his future, had routinely mentioned 2017 as the date in which he would step aside and ride off into the sunset. Of course, this was before last season's scintillating run to the Final Four; one that may have rejuvenated the zeal and passion with which Pitino did his job, and before the contract extension he just signed earlier in the week that will keep him around the Louisville program through 2022, when the Cardinals' coach will be celebrating another milestone birthday, his 70th.
When asked at Big East media day if last year restarted the fire that he had so prominently displayed when coaching the Knicks and Celtics, as well as during his national championship season at Kentucky in 1996, Pitino was anything but evasive. "My fire and passion today is just as good as it was in 1987," the coach stated, recalling his Louisville-esque Final Four run with Providence twenty-five years ago at the helm of a team that included current Florida coach Billy Donovan.
Pitino later went on to reveal some of the secrets that have made him successful over a career that has spanned bits and pieces of five decades dating back to his first head coaching job at Boston University, including some mistakes that he admits to making early in his career. "My biggest regret was that I wasn't more humble in my thirties and forties," the coach intimated. "That's my biggest regret, because I truly feel that the key to being happy at what you do and being passionate at what you do is humility; and I look out there right now and I see a young man from Butler, (Brad Stevens) and I see Shaka (Smart) from Virginia Commonwealth, and I see such great humility in them. I didn't have that skill."
Personal skills aside, Rick Pitino more than makes up for it with his professional skills. One does not need to look any further than his vast coaching tree, which over the past eighteen months has grown two new branches in Manhattan coach Steve Masiello; and most recently, Pitino's own son Richard, now the head coach at Florida International. "He was the only son I couldn't talk out of becoming a coach," said Rick Sr. of Rick Jr. "I'm very happy for him." Regarding Masiello, whose Jaspers will open the season against the Cardinals next Sunday at the Yum! Center, Pitino said this of the 35-year-old prodigy who has the prohibitive favorites in the MAAC: "I think he's one of the best young coaches in our game. He's very smart, especially in terms of recruiting."
The intelligence of Pitino's disciples are just part of the total package with which they arrive at their new programs, a product of having been prepared by one of the all-time greats in the industry, one whose imminent Hall of Fame induction will be a testimonial to what will go down in history as one of the best careers ever enjoyed in the sport despite lacking the gaudy statistics racked up by the Krzyzewskis, Knights and Smiths of the world. "The way Coach Pitino treats you, like a head coach; and the responsibility and level he holds you to, gets you to the point where you're going to learn at all times," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, a former Pitino assistant at Louisville before his brief stint as the head man at Murray State preceded his now seven-year run in charge of the Bearcats. "It gets you ready to be a head coach, it definitely prepares you. There's no way I'd be the coach I am without him."
His past accomplishments and track record clearly speak for themselves, but today, Rick Pitino stands determined to succeed yet again, with this Louisville team he leads into battle this season one of his best yet. The consensus choice to win the Big East in nearly every preseason poll, his Cardinals will open against Manhattan in nine days in a matchup the coach described as a "basketball version of Watergate" against his former protege Masiello. When age made its way into the conversation in midtown Manhattan two weeks ago, Pitino offered proof that it was merely a number after all. "I can't believe I'm 60," the coach remarked. "I just want to have fun every single day coaching and hope I wake up the next day."
So far, it looks like his simple objective is being carried out to the fullest.