NCAA BK

Humble or not, Pitino still an elite coach

Jon Crispin previews the Kentucky-Louisville Final Four clash.
Jon Crispin previews the Kentucky-Louisville Final Four clash.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW ORLEANS

After all he has been through, and all he has put himself through, Rick Pitino has been humbled. Just ask him. He'll tell you.

In fact, he'll even brag about it.

Pitino has always been a salesman, and is great at it. He's selling himself like a used car salesman. That's what it takes in college basketball today, a coaching model he might have invented.

The thing is, through all his personal storms, his colossal failures with the Boston Celtics and his reality show of a life, people forget what a brilliant college basketball coach Pitino really is. He arrives at the Final Four with a Louisville team that has little or no NBA-level talent, and will go against No. 1 Kentucky, which has plenty.

Just watch, Pitino will get his team into the final minutes of that game Saturday with a chance. Two days later, we might have one of the most awkward moments ever in college basketball: Pitino might win his second national championship, but — according to ESPNNew York.com — will not be announced as one of the newest inductees to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

That is insane. Six Final Fours and a national championship should be enough for the Hall of Fame. So why isn't he getting in? Who knows? But it might have to do with the personal side. It might be some grand statement from voters, who didn't seem to have any trouble letting Dennis Rodman in.

"I've never said this publicly, but I'll say it here," Florida coach Billy Donovan said last week after being outcoached by his mentor late in the regional final. "I'm absolutely shocked he's not in the Hall of Fame. Shocked."

It was 25 years ago, here in New Orleans, that Pitino's legend started.

He reached his first Final Four. Remember? He got here with Providence, which was taking advantage of the new three-point shot. Or, as Pitino says, the other coaches didn't know enough to take advantage of it.

Pitino was a sympathetic figure from the start. He was the whiz-kid coach, and his team was playing for him. When Providence was on the way home from the Big East tournament, police pulled over the team bus and told Pitino and his wife to get off. Eventually, they got the news that their six-month old son had died of heart failure.

In the quarter century since then, Pitino, now 59, has lived through so many ups and downs. He is considered charming and beloved, and then burns bridges everywhere he goes. He has succumbed to the pressures and temptations of success.

He has reached the top and enjoyed the fringe benefits a little too much. He had two failed stints in the NBA, including with the Boston Celtics, where his ego insisted he had everything. So, he removed legendary coach Red Auerbach's honorary title as team president. Then he went on to nearly run the franchise into the ground.

On 9/11, he lost his best friend and brother-in-law, who was on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. Pitino reached back-to-back title games at Kentucky. He's the one who left Grant Hill uncovered for his famous pass to Christian Laettner for the game-winning shot.

By 2005, after his time with the Celtics, Pitino was rebuilding his name at Louisville. The narrative then? Put it this way: When his team reached the regional final in New Mexico that year, he was praising Louisville legend Denny Crum. It was such a contrast to what he'd done with Auerbach that, well, I wrote about him in the Chicago Sun-Times, saying that someone had let the air out of his head:

Pitino is talking about someone other than Pitino. In the past, you always had the feeling that his favorite conversations were the ones he had with his mirror.

In August of 2009, Pitino was flipping out, blackmailed by a woman who claimed to have had a sexual encounter with him in a restaurant. Pitino was so outraged by the media coverage that he called a press conference to say, partly, that the media should understand his wife was going through a hard time, what with her husband being blackmailed.

The blackmail was the reason for the hard time?

Anyway, 2 1/2 years later, the narrative again is that Pitino has now been humbled. He said his biggest regret is not failing to cover Hill, but instead not being humble.

"A lot of times the last two years, I took a lot of grief from a lot of people saying a lot of things," he said. "And I never thought in my life I could turn the other cheek and just walk on. And I did.

"Some of the most ugly things I've heard, I just took it inside. And today, as I look back on it, I'm real proud that you could turn the other cheek."

When talking about Pitino, you just can't get away from the reality show. But one thing is for sure: He can coach a team to do anything over the course of 40 minutes. That might include beating Kentucky.

This is a big moment for Pitino. He could have been a legend at Kentucky, but chose to leave. Now he's playing the underdog at the in-state rival. It comes against his rival coach, too, in John Calipari, who is trying to win his first title.

Pitino explained the history of the rivalry, saying that in the old days, it started along racial lines. Louisville was the minority university and Kentucky the privileged one. It all changed, he said, when Kentucky hired Tubby Smith as a head coach.

"The lines are no longer racially motivated," he said. "(Now) it's just pure hatred."

Everyone laughed.

He is still charming. Funny. Likable. But most importantly, his players improve when they learn from him.

"Coming in, you hear all the stories about guys getting yelled at (by Pitino), but it doesn't actually sink in until you're the guy at practice getting yelled at," Louisville forward Kyle Kuric said. "It takes a little bit of getting used to, but he's trying to help you and isn't just yelling for no reason. I've learned a lot from him and wouldn't trade it for anything."

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Hmm. The stories now aren't about his yelling, but about players getting behind him during press conferences and making bunny ears. They are all just one happy family behind one humble coach.

Believe it or not. But don't doubt that despite these two rosters, Pitino can make a game of this Saturday.

And if he loses?

He'll still close the sale on the Hall of Fame eventually.

Tagged: Louisville, Kentucky

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