The Complex Case of Rick Pitino and Basketball in Kentucky

Complete with hyperlinks and endnotes

News of dueling books about Rick Pitino as well as stories surrounding the lawsuit between Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville regarding the recruiting scandal that led to his firing in 2017 have me reflecting on Rick Pitino’s time in my beloved home state of Kentucky.  Kentucky cannot make sense unless one has a sense of the importance of basketball to the commonwealth.  The story of basketball in Kentucky cannot be told without Rick Pitino.(1)

Prelude: Basketball in Kentucky

It is difficult to explain the social role of basketball in the state of Kentucky.  The University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are both among the top 10 programs in college basketball by nearly any metric one might choose for measuring college basketball programs.  Western Kentucky University is one of the twenty winningest programs in college basketball.  Kentucky’s high school state championship, known as the Sweet 16, draws raucous crowds and teams from 16 different regions of Kentucky.  In a state with economic problems, basketball is a calling card of pride for players and fans alike.

UK and U of L did not meet for decades prior to an Elite 8 clash in 1983 won by Louisville in overtime.  I recall fights breaking out at school bus stops and birthday parties based on which team a given kid preferred.  This is pretty sad in retrospect, but one had to pass the time while waiting for the school bus.  In 1989, UK suffered its first losing season in 62 years and saw a large number of players transfer while NCAA sanctions fell on the program like a hammer.  I was entering 8th grade when this happened.  All I knew was that a major source for my entertainment and pride was in the dumps.  Kentucky basketball looked to be on the ropes if not utterly knocked out.

This was bordering on human sacrifice levels of crowd mania as UK upset LSU in 1990

Enter Rick Pitino

UK hired the New York Knicks’ basketball coach.  That alone was a major coup given the severe NCAA sanctions.  I did not know a single thing about Rick Pitino but loved the enthusiasm I heard from this coach in his late 30s.  He was high octane when compared to the area coaches with whom I was familiar (Denny Crum, Eddie Sutton, and Joe B. Hall).  He praised his players’ work ethic while lamenting their lack of height.  He was quick with a joke and promised an entertaining team.  His first season at UK included a television blackout with live UK games only being available to ticket holders, radio listeners and people willing to call a 1-900 number to listen to the games (no joke!).  The games were must-see err listen events.   I’ve never heard crowds so excited before in my life.  This was especially true when UK knocked off LSU featuring players such as Shaquille O’Neal and NCAA scoring leader Chris Jackson.

I could go on and on.  UK was tournament eligible for 6 of Pitino’s 8 seasons as UK’s head coach.  UK won the 1996 NCAA title, was NCAA runner-up in 1997, a Final Four squad in 1993, lost a tremendous game to Duke in an NCAA Elite 8 in 1992 and lost to North Carolina in an Elite 8 game in 1995.  Pitino’s UK teams won 5 of 6 SEC Tournaments in which they appeared and won 6 of 8 games versus the University of Louisville.  In short, Rick Pitino helped to usher in a second golden age of Kentucky basketball.  He did so while generally offering a smile, a joke, and a motivational blurb.

Exit Rick Pitino

I remember generally being enamored with Rick Pitino’s coaching throughout his UK tenure.  I did chafe at his treatment of Rodderick Rhodes during the 1994-95 season.  Pitino complained that players such as Rhodes had too much pressure placed on them coming out of high school despite Pitino writing an entire chapter of his 1993 book Full Court Pressure about Rhodes’ high school prowess.(2)  I resented the 1996 flirtation with the New Jersey Nets thinking leaving the newly minted NCAA champs for the bottom-feeding Nets made no sense.  I even quibbled with Pitino’s decision to press Arizona in the 1997 NCAA Championship game.(3)

Rumors of Rick Pitino leaving for the Boston Celtics took on a new intensity after the 1997 season ended.  Money and the Celtics name proved to be decisive as Rick Pitino returned to the NBA.   I was in my 3rd year of college at this time.  I lost a lot of respect for Pitino when he left UK.  Pitino had asked Jeff Sheppard to redshirt for what would have been his senior season to compensate for slow recruiting.  I thought Pitino had made promises to a lot of players my age and younger and was already rich (he was selling self-help books and Pitino Pasta (?!) in Kentucky prior to his departure).(4)  I didn’t get it.  I felt terribly for Jeff Sheppard, the rest of the UK roster, and the incoming recruits.

Delicate Genius in New England

The complexity of Rick Pitino came into fuller relief to me when he was in the NBA.  Pitino has charisma to spare.  He was also is capable of self-serving comments.  Adversity brought out a bit more of the later and less of the former.

The Boston Celtics had a decent first season under Pitino.  After that, the Celtics seemed to move further and further from NBA relevance.  Losses piled up, and Pitino resigned during his 4th season in Boston.  Rick Pitino became the hottest free agent for college basketball coaching openings right as the University of Louisville acrimoniously parted with its Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum.

But no …

Re-Enter Rick Pitino

But yes …

Rick Pitino had taken his share of verbal shots at Denny Crum.  Notably, he quipped that the mother of a recruit UK and U of L were both pursuing had “Crum Cake” for dessert after an infraction generating dinner with Denny Crum during a  recruiting dead period.  It seemed inconceivable to me that Pitino would coach 70-miles from his old stomping grounds for an archrival whom he verbally baited.  Still, the University of Louisville went out and hired the best available coach.  This amped up the acrimony between UK and U of L to 1980s levels.  Pitino also redirected his verbal baiting by throwing multiple jabs at UK.(5)

Pitino 2.0 was a Success Until Scandals Tore Things Down

I am a lifelong UK fan and was not thrilled with Rick Pitino’s 1997 departure.  Not being 21, I can safely say anyone offering to more than double one’s salary for doing similar work should warrant serious consideration.  My 1997 reaction was a function of being green about money matters.  I did not like Pitino’s cage-rattling with the UK fanbase although I generally tried to avoid the bait.  In fairness, UK basketball fans can be a difficult lot so that acrimony was a two-way street.

There were Pitinoisms that got old.(6)  Giving Kentucky fans the finger and then denying it was pretty comical and sad.  However, no one could argue with his overall success at U of L.  I even remember feeling excited when Louisville briefly gained a lead over Michigan in the first half of the 2013 NCAA championship game due to defensive intensity erasing a massive deficit.  Louisville went on to win the game.  When Pitino’s pressing style was working, it was a lot of fun to watch even if NCAA hoops has moved further away from defensive risks with its current obsession with efficiency.

During Pitino’s time at Louisville, various scandals popped up.  I don’t want to rehash them here because they are frankly depressing.  Pitino would have created a successful second act except for the fact that the scandals he oversaw tarnished everything his teams achieved.  Louisville basketball missed a postseason, had an NCAA title and NCAA Final Four appearance vacated, endured a season of uncertainty with an interim coach, and still faces the specter of ongoing FBI investigations and future NCAA penalties.

In Retrospect

Some of this story is silly when given the perspective of time.  For instance, Rick Pitino sold pasta to basketball-crazy fans and flipped the bird to those same fans years later (not to mention fights at the morning bus stop).  A lot of this speaks to me about the dangers of tunnel vision.  Rick Pitino’s coaching influence is easy to identify because of his wins, the successes of his assistant coaches, as well as the widespread imitation of Pitino’s methods.  Rick Pitino loves to compete.  In my 20s, I saw him and his staff at a bar or two in Louisville betting west coast horse races and playing liars poker with dollar bills between horse races.  The marriages between Pitino’s competitive tunnel vision with two different rabid basketball fanbases produced wins and excitement.

This tunnel vision also has prevented Pitino from letting any dust settle on his body of work.  Pitino passionately attacks stories about his involvement in scandals and vows to never be interviewed again only to give more interviews.  He publicly states he wants to coach again and then publicly laments not being hired less than 12-months after being fired.  Some coaches might bide their time and hope for a program to take a chance on them.  Rick Pitino coaches pressure defense.  He competes at all times.  He is not going to hang back.  The problem is that public opinion and moral outrage cannot be reversed with a few steals and made threes.

I fondly recall the energetic 30-something Pitino when he came to Lexington with positivity and a desire to fight to reclaim what UK once held.  Now, Pitino seems tired, seems to react to every criticism never allowing wounds to heal, and seems hell-bent on continuing to fight when he might be better served by learning the art of fighting without fighting.  That is not Rick Pitino though.  He keeps pressing his case, keeps attacking his critics, and keeps seeking a victory on a scoreboard.  I think Pitino would be better off if he pursued a less tangible victory such as contentment while teaching basketball in contexts removed from money and fame.  Rick Pitino has enough of those two qualities but adding contentment would perhaps complete a quiet but ultimately satisfying comeback.(7)

(1) Rick Pitino coached the University of Kentucky from 1989-1997 and the University of Louisville from 2002-2017.  His former assistants and former players were head coaches at the following colleges/universities in Kentucky: Tubby Smith – University of Kentucky 1997-2007,  Bernadette Locke-Mattox – University of Kentucky Women’s Basketball Head Coach – 1996-2003, Ralph Willard – Western Kentucky University 1990-1994, Travis Ford – Campbellsville College – 1997-2000 & Eastern Kentucky University 2000-2005, Mick Cronin – Murray State University 2003-2006, Sean Woods – Morehead State University 2012-2016, Winston Bennett – Kentucky State University 2001-2003

(2) The chapter was entitled “All Rhodes Lead to Kentucky” yet Pitino never mentioned his own hyping of Rhodes when lamenting the pressures placed on his hot/cold player.

(3) Mike Bibby and Jason Terry had far better NBA careers than anyone on the 1996-97 UK roster.  Still, UK’s roster produced 3 long-tenured NBA frontcourt players plus a lottery pick in Ron Mercer who played the 3 in college and the 2 in the NBA.  I don’t know what a slower tempo would have looked like, but pressing did not bother Arizona in this NCAA championship clash.

(4) I lived in Providence, RI in 1999 and saw Pitino Pasta in New England grocery stores after having seen it in Kentucky grocery stores.  I had not switched jobs too often at 21-years of age so I was a bit hard on Pitino when he left UK in 1997.  Sometimes one has a great job and still needs to change jobs for whatever reason and doubling one’s salary can’t be ignored even if one’s previous salary was in the $2-3 million per/year range.

(5) Tubby Smith and Denny Crum had downplayed the rivalry for 4 seasons prior to Pitino’s return to the rivalry.  Pitino quipped that Outback Steakhouse was the best Italian restaurant in Lexington as well as noting that he enjoyed U of L’s football success as he had never coached at a college with a college football team.

(6) Pitino has always had a tendency to make players either sound like world beaters or egg beaters depending on the context.  In Boston, Andrew Declerq was a “jump shot away from greatness” and in Lexington, Antoine Walker reminded Pitino of Magic Johnson in the open court.  This practice did not end at Louisville.  Pitino oddly referred to Louisville’s 2005 Final Four trip as an “Olympic medal.”  Pitino told a strange and outlandish story about how a well-timed cardinal bird landing, while he was talking to Ralph Willard, contributed to his taking the Louisville coaching job.  A friend of mine who is a Louisville fan told me, “I know the story is crazy and probably false, but you have to love him.”  I did not love him when he coached a rival team, but I knew what he meant.  Pitino’s hyperbole, when wins are flowing to be sure, was extremely easy for me to embrace.

(7) I don’t know what might bring about contentment for Rick Pitino.  He might already have a lot of it.  Still, I’d be very content knowing he was coaching/instructing regular level players at a YMCA or youth center.  No one can doubt his love for basketball, and that love could be restorative.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s