Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rick Pitino Finally Gets His Coronation

Three days after his election to Basketball Hall of Fame and son Richard's (photo right) introduction as new head coach at Minnesota, Rick Pitino caps off career-defining weekend with national championship win as Louisville defeats Michigan for program's first title since 1986.  (Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Anyone who has spent any time around the world of college basketball, even for just 15 seconds, (no pun intended) knows the name Rick Pitino.

These same people also know of Pitino's greatness and legacy, which is headlined by a resume featuring over 600 victories, and know that despite all the accolades, there have always been questions surrounding its validity and its lack of a testimonial outside of his 1996 national championship at Kentucky.

Whatever questions were raised have all been answered emphatically in the last seven days, with Pitino, who at 60 is still young in comparison to the others in the coaching Pantheon, getting his long overdue vindication with three events that seemingly came down in one fell swoop.

Pitino's week to remember started with a phone call from the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, which finally elected him into its fraternity after what seemed like a decade of waiting for what everyone around the game knew to be inevitable.  He then (literally) put the Hall on hold to take a call that same morning from his eldest son Richard, hired this past Wednesday by the University of Minnesota to replace Rick's former assistant Tubby Smith after just one season at Florida International in which he took the Panthers from unheralded and forgotten in the city of Miami to the Sun Belt championship game.  Following that double dose of gratification, one would think there would be no way to top that, right?

Wrong.

Pitino culminated his tidal wave of joy by watching his Louisville team win their sixteenth consecutive game, defeating Michigan by the final of 82-76 inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to give the Cardinals their first national championship since the days of Denny Crum and Pervis Ellison in 1986.  The win made Pitino, already the first coach in NCAA history to take three different schools to the Final Four; a feat since matched by John Calipari, the first to win a national title at two different institutions, making him the Sparky Anderson and Tony LaRussa of college basketball, and if that wasn't enough, the win was the 664th of Pitino's career, matching him with the great UCLA architect John Wooden, whose ten championship wins are the unbreakable record in the sport.

"Players put coaches in the Hall of Fame," Pitino told CBS' Jim Nantz shortly after accepting the national championship.  "Tonight, Chane Behanan's guts on the backboard put me there."

That is typical Pitino, deflecting any and all praise he receives to those who make it possible for him to get the credit.  In the five years that I have been blessed to know him, he has exuded class without fail despite a tendency to speak his mind which some of my colleagues have taken the wrong way, and thus deserves to savor this celebration; not just for Rick Pitino the coach, but also Rick Pitino the teacher and Rick Pitino the person.

Pitino the coach will obviously be lauded for his meticulous game management and astute use of his bench throughout the season both before and after the Kevin Ware injury against Duke, and will also be heralded for his career success, which now has a second trophy to add to his impending enshrinement in Springfield this September, but the other two components of the Pitino trinity should be equally honored.  Rick's record as a mentor speaks for itself, and gets a boost with his son's arrival at Minnesota at the young age of 30.  Richard is one of several Pitino disciples with a head job at the Division I level, a group that includes proven success stories like Florida's Billy Donovan, who Rick matched last night with his second championship; as well as Mick Cronin of Cincinnati, with Manhattan coach Steve Masiello on the fast track to stardom as well as he prepares for his third season at the helm of the Jaspers.  However, it is Rick the person that deserves the biggest recognition.

From the moment I met Rick Pitino in 2008, I felt like I was one of the few in the media who connected with him.  Maybe it was the New York roots, with the coach hailing from Brooklyn and yours truly being born and raised in Queens, or maybe it was our shared Italian heritage.  Whatever it was, he became one of three people, Jim Calhoun and Mike Krzyzewski being the others, to teach me more about the game of basketball simply by speaking to me.  In subsequent interviews, I noticed his brutal honesty; another common trait between Pitino and I, from the infamous Karen Sypher incident, to his emotion even years after the death of his brother-in-law Billy Minardi, to his two separate failures in the NBA, his willingness to admit that he wasn't always right, even as to why he had such a positive relationship with the media over the years.

Most people advise against friendships in my industry to protect against biased reporting, but those of you who know me well know that I cannot help but become attached to the people I have such connections to.  The bond I developed through covering Pitino made me want to see him succeed even more, especially this season, when it became clear that the Big East dissolution and separation would eventually find its way to Louisville and fate decreed that I would not be able to see Pitino again in the near future.  

January 9th at the Prudential Center provided a moment I will not soon forget.

Following Louisville's victory over Seton Hall that night and former Pitino assistant Kevin Willard's press conference after what became the first of many deflating Big East losses for the Pirates, I was able to catch up to the coach on his way out of the locker room in Newark, hitting the newly-minted Hall of Famer with a dose of candor befitting of one of his own gatherings with the media on a day in which his Cardinal program announced its eventual defection to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"Rick," I said as we walked down the tunnel; knowing full well that we might not get another chance to cross paths again, "I just wanted to thank you for everything over the last five years.  You're going to be missed.  All the best."  Pitino, who normally moves faster than speed of light on game days and nights, especially when trying to leave an arena, stopped to return the favor.

"No," he said back, looking me square in the eyes as he had every other time I interviewed him.  "Thank you.  You too."

If that turns out to be my last face-to-face interaction with him, then it goes without saying that I am beyond glad to see Rick Pitino reach the top of the mountain again.  It proves that God looks out for nice guys every now and then, and they don't get much nicer than Pitino.

Now, instead of people like me just saying it, his resume has the last pieces of vindication it did not necessarily need, but has anyway to enhance it.  

Hall of Famer.  Great teacher.  Champion.  On the court, and in life as well.

Congratulations, Rick.  Enjoy the moment, my friend.

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