Not even the staunchest Rick Pitino-hater (read: me) could ever deny that he single-handedly rescued Kentucky Basketball. That statement is indisputable. It took the Boy Baron all of eight seasons to turn water into wine in Lexington, transforming a program devastated by probation into a well-oiled college basketball machine, the likes of which unseen since the days John Wooden manned the sidelines in Westwood. Just think about this for a minute: In the six seasons his Kentucky teams were post-season eligible, they went to 3 Final Fours, 2 National Title Games, and won one National Championship; then, the year after he left, they brought home another Title (which many Kentucky fans still give Pitino the majority of the credit for, despite is absence). When you take into account the team he inherited (a crew of hillbillies from Eastern Kentucky) and the limited resources he was given to build and recruit with (3 scholarships per season, no games to be televised), Pitino’s eight-season run in Lexington has got to be the best turnaround job (or, arguably, coaching job in general) in college basketball history. For all his faults, no one has ever accused him of being a lousy coach.
So, in case I haven’t made myself clear regarding Pitino’s legacy, I’ll say it like this: Had C.M Newton not hired Rich Pitino to replace Eddie Sutton—and instead landed, say, Lute Olsen or P.J. Carlesimo, like he tried to—Kentucky would not be in nearly the shape it’s in today. Had Rick Pitino not been named Head Coach in 1989, the following things almost certainly would never have happened:
– Kentucky 6th and 7th National Championships (’96 & ’98)
– Four trips to the Final Four in five years (’93, ’96, ’97, ’98)
– The greatest NCAA basketball game ever played (UK v. Duke, 1992)
– The Unforgettables (1992)
– The Untouchables/The Greatest College Basketball Team of All-Time (1996)
– Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, Richie Farmer, Wayne Turner, et al.
– All those crazy uniforms from 1993-1996. (Just to recap: we had the ones with the waves across the front of the shorts, the ice sickle-looking ones, a half-season stint with a more classic look until, of course, the infamous denim jerseys.)
For everything he’s done wrong, Pitino did one thing better than anyone else: He ushered in a new era of College Basketball. People forget how radical his coaching style was at the time, what with the full-court press and all the three pointers (he the first coach to take full advantage of the new line, figuring out that shooting 30% from beyond the 3-point line was almost as good as shooting 50% inside it). No one realized it at the time, but he was revolutionizing the game, and Lexington, KY was the place lucky enough to have a front row seat.
Just to be clear, that will never stop me from hating him.
Of course, there will always be a small part of me that loves him. For all the reasons I’ve just listed, I don’t know that I’ll ever completely get over him; he will forever be my Kentucky Basketball version of The One That Got Away. Not unlike millions of now absent figures from millions of past romantic lives, Pitino’s appeal—and subsequent torment—is not rooted in what he was, but what he could have been. Fantasies of NBA All-Star filled, full-court pressing Final Four teams—coming on an annual basis, of course—are carried with me to this day. That’s because for all the twenty-somethings out there who grew up on Pitino Ball, they’re not fantasies at all—they’re matters of fact. Pitino walked away from a potential dynasty that could have very well surpassed anything the John Wooden-coached UCLA teams of the 70’s or previous Rupp-led UK squads ever accomplished. Kentucky was well on its way to becoming (or, arguably, in the early stages of) a New York Yankees, circa 1927, Murderers Row-style dynasty (his ’96 team alone put 9 players in the NBA).
All it took was eight seasons for him to rebuild the Roman Empire of college basketball; the hard part was over with. He’d worked his way to the top of the coaching profession, and in the process created the kind of program he’d always envisioned. All those late night film sessions and 6 A.M. practices had finally paid off—now was the time for him (and the Kentucky fans) to bask in the fruits of his labor. Except for one thing, Pitino had other plans: He bolted for the NBA just after the ’97 season.
The Boston Celtics came calling, and he said he’d be insane to say no, because, well, he’d be turning down a better version of the same job he accepted eight seasons ago. The Boston Celtics of 1997 were the NBA-version of the 1989 Kentucky Wildcats: Tradition rich franchises that’d fallen on hard times, for one reason or another, that were desperate for a coach who could bring a fresh and victorious style of play to their passionate and dejected fans.
So, just like that, Pitino was gone. But it’s important to point out that, at least at this point, there were still far more Pitino lovers than haters amongst Kentucky fans, myself included. Most of us recognized the fact that Pitino had put every ounce of energy he had into his job over the past eight years and now he’d moved on to a better one. Besides, it wasn’t like he’d left us for another college basketball team (there’d be no risk of him coaching against us), this was the NBA; specifically, this was the Celtics, the franchise with arguably the most impressive resume in league history. Really, who could blame him?
This wish-you-well sentiment would last for roughly four years, until 2001, when Pitino would make his return to college basketball at the University of Louisville.
I don’t think it’s possible to do justice to just how batshit crazy Pitino’s move to Louisville was at the time. For starters–and I’m not just saying this because I hate U of L–Pitino was bigger than Louisville. Kentucky fans weren’t worried about Pitino taking the job when the rumors first came up–everyone thought the Louisville job was beneath him. Not so much for moral reasons (although we would’ve appreciated that), but more because Pitino was the hottest coach on the market; he could’ve had any job he wanted.
Michigan wanted him. UCLA was about to open up. Indiana and Mike Davis were on very shaky ground. There were several New York-area schools (Pitino’s homeland and recruiting pipeline) that would’ve fallen over themselves had Pitino put the word out that he was interested. In fact, several jobs were about to open (or would have, had they known Pitino was available) that were bigger and better jobs than Louisville. Every A.D. in the country wanted Pitino, so, why Louisville?
Pitino’s reasoning never made sense. His stance was that his wife missed the Commonwealth to the point that she was eager to return to the same simple life Kentucky provided them and their family four years ago. Without a doubt in my mind, this was (and continues to be) complete and total horse shit: Pitino’s wife hates Kentucky. I know this the same way every other resident of Kentucky knows it: She’s vocal about it. In a 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of her husband, Joanne Pitino went on the record regarding her disdain for the Commonwealth multiple times. It wasn’t complete and total venom on her part: She’d grown up in New York and now she missed New York—completely understandable. But understandable disdain aside, she left absolutely no wiggle room; Joanne Pitino did not like living in Kentucky. As a matter of fact, her husband bought a house in New York—while they were still living in Kentucky—just to give her a place she could escape to whenever the rednecks of Lexington became too much. So, just to summarize, nobody believes Rick Pitino returned to Kentucky for the benefit of his wife.
What was much more likely: Pitino missed the attention and worship Kentucky provided him. It’s no secret that Pitino is an egomaniac of the highest order, and as much as he’d like to pretend he’s glad the days of being hounded at dinner or getting mobbed on campus are behind him, don’t be fooled—nobody loves attention more than Rick Pitino. His ego is notoriously obese, and like most egomaniacs, it’s the driving force behind every decision he makes. It’s the reason he took the Knicks job, it’s the reason he came to Kentucky, it’s the reason he left for the Celtics, it’s the reason he gets out of bed in the morning: The man needs to be appreciated. And he was never more appreciated than he was during his time in Lexington. Unprecedented success combined with a zealot fanbase created a match made in egotistical heaven. Kentucky loved Pitino, and Pitino loved that Kentucky loved him.
He didn’t have that in Boston. Part of that was his fault; part of it was Boston’s. He underestimated the job; they overestimated his talents. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is suited for the task(s) of being Coach, General Manager, and President of an NBA Franchise. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. For some reason, Pitino and the Celtics both though he could do it; of course, they thought wrong, and four years later, the Celitcs record over that time stood at 102-146—AKA, not good enough. Not for the Celtics, and especially not for Pitino—he submitted his resignation 34 games into the 2001 season.
At this point, Pitino’s ego was in desperate need of repair.
It got all the reparation it could handle when the announcement was made that he would be named Louisville’s next Head Basketball Coach. Louisville fans were on cloud nine; Kentucky fans were on the warpath. I’m not even joking when I say that to this day, I am genuinely surprised that there were no attempts on Rick Pitino’s life. Time’s done a stellar job of healing wounds for most, so it’s easy to forget how homicidally enraged people were at the time. I don’t know if Pitino surrounded himself with bodyguards or just did the smart thing and went into serious hiding after his hire, because I can think of more than a few hundred people who would’ve paid good money have three un-officiated rounds with him in a caged fight. It was that serious; he had done the unforgivable. He was the metaphorical best girlfriend we ever had, who parted with us on the most amicable of terms, but then moved back to town and–inexplicably–started knocking boots with our less-attractive, unemployed, skanky nemesis down the street. Some things just aren’t meant to be forgiven.
Pitino didn’t do himself any favors in his press conferences either. Instead of acknowledging the move for what it was (at the very least, disloyal), he called out Kentucky fans for being, in his words, small-minded. He would’ve done himself so many favors, had he just come out and said something to the effect of:
“I know a lot of people are going to have a problem with this, and, to tell you the truth, I can’t blame them. I know how this stuff works. I know that no matter what I say or do, a lot of those people will hate me forever. But, I just want them all to know, that if it weren’t for all the love and hospitality they showed me while I was here before, I would have never been so inclined to come back. I wish I could still be their coach, but I can’t. I wish the University of Kentucky and their fans all the best.”
Sure it would’ve been B.S., but it would’ve at least been the polite thing to do. I know that’s stupid and lame, but it’s how things are done in Kentucky. And we would’ve appreciated it.
Of course that S.O.B. said nothing of the sort. He called out Kentucky fans, vowed to return Louisville to prominence, and used his wife as a scapegoat for his decision. In fashion typical of his loyalty, he’d practically agreed to take the Michigan job the day before, then backed out and told the Michigan brass he was heading back to the Bluegrass. Once again, he gave his wife full credit for his dishonesty: “My wife said ‘I think that you love the state of Kentucky. I think you should go back to the place you love.’” His wife talked him out of it, my ass. Resisting the urge to take too cheap a shot here, I think if we’ve learned anything about Rick Pitino over the last few years, it’s that his wife’s wishes are the last thing on his mind.
The irony in this article is that for all the hatred he’s caused Kentucky fans, Pitino’s accomplished very little since going to Louisville. He’s missed the NCAA tournament twice (’02 and ’06), while bowing out in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament three more times (’03, ’04, ’07). He did make get the Cardinals back to their first Final Four in 19 years in ’05, and lead a very talented Louisville team (the overall #1 going into the NCAA’s) to the Elite Eight last year before being upset by Michigan State. Then, of course, there is the sex scandal that erupted over the past summer. It’s been ugly, to say the least, but it’s done wonders in terms of shedding light on Pitino’s core personality.
I’m not sure who said it, but there’s a quote that goes, “A man’s true character comes out in times of crisis.” Assuming this to be somewhat true, Rick Pitino’s shown himself to be man of very little shame, respect, or moral fiber over the past few months. He’s practically run a clinic on How Not to Be a Sympathetic Figure. Just to recap, let’s take a quick chronological look at how things have shaken out:
– April 18, 2009 – Pitino calls a press conference to announce that he is the victim of an extortion attemption, and that he has contacted the FBI for help.
– April 19 – August 11, 2009 – Nothing happens. For the next several months, absolutely no details emerge. The Louisville Courier-Journal sits on the story, supposedly at the request of Tom Jurich, Pitino, and the rest of the Louisville brass.
– August 12, 2009 – It’s finally revealed that Pitino’s extortion attempt stems from an affair he had several years ago with a woman named Karen Cunagin Sypher. Pitino impregnated Sypher (Cunagin at the time), then gave her $3000 to pay for an undisclosed medical expense (read: abortion)–all of this is admitted to by Pitino. The Louisville coach also, according to Sypher, paid one of his assistants, Tim Sypher, to marry her (this was denied by Pitino).
– August 25, 2009 – More details begin to leak, this time of the less-reliable variety. It begins to appear more and more likely that Sypher is a loon; she says Pitino forced her to have the abortion, threatened to kill her and her children, then releases a voicemail to police that supports the exact opposite of that claim.
– August 26, 2009 – Instead of keeping quiet–which his attorneys and U of L advised him to do–Pitino thinks it will benefit him to lash out at the Louisville media–the same Louisville media, I should remind you, that sat on this story for months, solely to benefit him–for ‘reporting these lies’ (on the day Ted Kennedy died, and when we should be worrying about the economy, to top it all off).
– December 22, 2009 – Karen Sypher pleads not guilty to charges of extortion and retaliating against a witness.
The most sickening aspect of Pitino’s behavior is how through all this he’s tried to portray himself as the victim. In his warped mind, sympathy and compassion are things a person who’s cheated on his wife, funded a cover-up abortion, and humiliated his family and employer deserves. When he spoke of the ‘pure hell’ his family’s gone through with this mess, he wasn’t acknowledging his own mistakes, he was trying to lay a guilt trip on the media. In his eyes, the level of insanity this situation’s gotten to is everyone’s fault but his own.
It should come as no big shock that Pitino has trouble absolving the blame for this mess; honor, accountability, loyalty–these are words he knows nothing of, and it’s not just Kentucky fans that’ll tell you that. Ask the people at Providence, the team he said he wanted to to coach forever just a few days before taking the New York Knicks job. Ask the Knicks, the so called Dream Job Pitino vacated to take another Dream Job which he would eventually bail on take another, you guessed it, Dream Job. Ask Bruce O’Neil, the former Head Coach Pitino worked under at Hawaii, and whose job Pitino angled for when the NCAA was investigating the school and O’Neil for violations Pitino would eventually be named in. Or better yet, ask his wife. Rick Pitino is a snake and a weasel. It’s a shame it took a gigantic public mistake to get everyone to realize it.
Speaking of mistakes, I will leave you with this:
Filed under: Kentucky Basketball | Tagged: C.M. Newton, Duke University, Jamal Masburn, Karen Sypher, Louisville Courier-Journal, Lute Olsen, New York Knicks, P.J. Carlesimo, Providence College Friars, Richie Farmer, Rick Pitino, Tim Sypher Bruce O'Neil, Tony Delk, University of Hawaii Fighting Rainbows, University of Louisville Cardinals, Wayne Turner |