Why I Still Like Rick Pitino

Yes, I’m one of those guys.  During UK’s coaching searches of recent years, I was one of the fans who wouldn’t have minded if Pitino wrote his own prodigal son story and came back to coach the boys in blue. (I wonder who would be the savior and who would be the lost son in this situation.  Would we be returning to Pitino or would he be returning to us?) When I would voice this opinion the replies for the most part went a little something like this: “That would NEVER happen.  Not even a chance.”  That is probably true.  But it’s interesting to note that rarely, if ever, did someone retort with, “I don’t want that traitor back.”

When it comes to liking Pitino I know I’m in the minority.  For most Kentucky fans the end-all-be-all of what Pitino is is a traitor, and I understand why people think that.  I’ll even admit that, technically, it’s true.  Pitino left Kentucky for a stint with the Celtics which ended in colossal failure, only to return to the only school that Kentucky fans hate with a more ferocious passion than even Duke and North Carolina.  (For the record, I hate Louisville too, though maybe not as much as Duke.  But this post is not about the Louisville Cardinals.)  Technically, that is what a traitor is.  But I don’t hate, or even really dislike, him for it.  I hate the team he coaches, filled with overrated player-babies like Edgar Sosa, but I still like Rick Pitino.  And liking him is not something that I actively try to do, it’s just something that is.

One of the reasons I still like Pitino is because during his coaching tenure at UK he built Kentucky into what now represents a large part of my childhood.  In my inaugural post for Lexpatriates I mentioned that Pitino had legendary teams in 90s. Check out this list of names; even those players who didn’t get much playing time but were fan favorites still seem to have this aura around their name:

Jamal Mashburn
Jeff Brassow
John Pelphrey
Deron Feldhaus
Richie Farmer
Sean Woods
Dale Brown
Gimel Martinez
Travis Ford
Andre Riddick
Chris Harrison
Rodrick Rhodes
Jared Prickett
Tony Delk
Walter McCarty
Jeff Sheppard
Anthony Epps
Mark Pope
Antoine Walker
Scott Padgett
Allen Edwards
Cameron Mills
Derek Anderson
Ron Mercer
Wayne Turner
Nazr Mohammed
Jamaal Magloire
Steve Masiello
Heshimu Evans

All of these guys played at least one year on Pitino teams. Some of them are among the biggest names surrounding the tradition of UK basketball. Some of them went on to have lucrative NBA careers. And Rick Pitino was the architect of these teams, the molder of these players, and at the collegiate level nobody has done it better. Honestly, the names on this list comprise what Kentucky Basketball Tradition means to me. When I hear people talk about the program’s storied tradition, I don’t first think of names like Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Dan Issel, Jack Givens, or Kyle Macy; I think of names like Jamal Mashburn, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods, Tony Delk (to name just a few players)…and I think of Rick Pitino.  Because I was alive to see these guys perform, it means more to me, and doubly so because I was still a kid.  To me Rick Pitino was the untouchable leader of the most exciting program in all of sports.  I used to listen to his call-in show, live from Bravo Pitino, with my dad, and hang on every word.  I noticed a swagger, a confidence in his words, even then, one that he quite obviously still has today even in the midst of tough personal circumstances.

When Rick Pitino took over as head coach at UK, the program was in dire straits, having been put on probation for “illegal things” that happened during the Eddie Sutton years.  I don’t remember much about the probation:  I was an innocent young child who just wanted to watch basketball; I didn’t care what was going on behind the scenes, nor would have have really understood what was going on if I’d known.  But looking back now and seeing how Pitino resurrected Kentucky under what was sure to have been much pressure and scrutiny, and with the world watching, I’m not sure Kentucky basketball would be what it is today without him, nor would it mean as much to my generation.  Some will say, “Well, eventually some other coach would have came along and put us back on top.”  Maybe.  But it’s truly hard to imagine any other coach doing that to such an extent that it produced Pitino-like results.  Whether fans admit it or not, Kentucky’s return to dominance in the 90s has formed what we have come to expect from Kentucky basketball every season since Pitino’s departure.

I think the only reason we grew to loathe Tubby Ball was because his stlye of play was so diametrically opposite Pitino’s. (This article touches on that theory somewhat.)  Tubby didn’t implement any kind of fast-paced offense or consistently relentless full-court pressure defense that made games so exciting to watch.  Subconsciously, or maybe just flat out, fans wanted Pitino back, or at least his stlye of play.  Gilispie’s style resembled Tubby’s more than Pitino’s and that was one reason (among others) that he got ran out of town.  Now we have a coach who is similar to Pitino in more ways than one can count, including style of play, and he is loved by all, deemed as the savior of Kentucky basketball fans have dreamed of and waxed prophetic about ever since Pitino left.

When Pitino returned to the college ranks and threw his chips in with the Cards, I’ll admit to being shocked and even pretty pissed off.  When Pitino made the announcement it was hard not to get caught up in the hoopla and jump on the Pitino-hating bandwagon.  How could he take the job at our rival school?  I was certainly on that bandwagon for a while but quickly jumped off when I realized that, even when seeing Pitino walking up and down the floor in front of the Louisville bench, I could still only think of what he did for Kentucky in the first seven years of a decade that shaped how much Kentucky basketball would mean to me.  It was when Pitino was coaching that I remember praying for the Cats the make it to the Final Four again because it made everybody so happy; and then the years we made it to the Final Four: “God, let us just win the National Championship one more time so everybody will get excited and be in a good mood until next season.”  It was Rick Pitino with the assist the years those prayers were answered.

The game this Saturday is going to be fun to watch.  Calipari is in the right spirit when he says the game isn’t about the coaches, it’s about the players; this particular game, however, to the fans anyway, is just as much about the coaches.  It’s a clash of the titans.  The history between the two giants has been well-documented. One of the most interesting statements Pitino has made regarding his time at Kentucky he spoke to John Calipari when Cal called him before accepting the UK job.  Calipari asked Pitino the same question he asked the other former coaches: “I’m thinking of taking this job.  What do you think?”  Pitino said, “To me [Kentucky] was Camelot.  I coached there for eight years and never had a bad day on the job.”  To call that a ringing endorsement would be a massive understatement.  But what stikes me about Pitino’s words is they show that he really enjoyed his time coaching here and having the support of a fanbase unlike any other in the nation.  Not ONE bad day?  Camelot?  That says a lot about Kentucky basketball, and says a lot about Pitino’s feelings about UK even all these years later; he probably still wishes he’d never left, no matter what he says.  I still like Pitino, but I’m obviously going to be rooting for the Cats this Saturday.  I’m going to be rooting for them to beat the life out of the Cards and cook them over an open flame for supper.  Louisville will always be Louisville.

On a side note about the game: there will obviously be signs at the game, no matter what Cal’s request, but I’m really hoping they don’t cross the line (I have my doubts).  It’s a funny world we live in where being famous breeds having details about your personal life made embarrassingly public so that people who don’t know you can chide you to make themselves feel better, saying, “At least I’m not that bad!” (see: Tiger Woods).  But a basketball game is no place to beat the dead horse of Pitino’s personal failures.  I did just spend several paragraphs defending why I like the guy, but even if I hated him I would be saying the same thing.  Keep it classy, Lexington.

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