Rick Patino, Basketball NCAA Final Four 2005

Friday, April 01, 2005

Rick Pitino is the first college coach to take three different teams (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the Final Four.

March 31, 2005 Three Times a Charm for Pitino

By PETE THAMEL

Correction Appended

LOUISVILLE, Ky., March 30 – Five years ago, Rick Pitino rented a house here for Kentucky Derby week. One sunny morning, he sat on the porch with an old friend, Holy Cross Coach Ralph Willard, and chatted about the possibility of returning to college coaching.

"It would be tough," Willard recalled saying to Pitino. "Once you’ve coached at Kentucky, where else can you go?"

Suddenly, a bright red cardinal landed on the porch table between them, inches from their coffee cups. Willard and Pitino exchanged smiles.

"When the Louisville job opened up the next year, we howled at that story," Willard said recently in a telephone interview. "What are the odds? We knew what it was. We knew it was a prophetic moment."

The prophecy came true less than a year later. Pitino resigned as president and coach of the Boston Celtics in January 2001, and three months later, he took over a Louisville program long on tradition and short on promise. Since then, Pitino has whisked a downtrodden Cardinals program from irrelevancy to the Final Four.

Pitino, the first coach to take three college teams (also Providence and Kentucky) to the Final Four, will arrive in St. Louis to face Illinois on Saturday with a full appreciation of the moment and the achievement.

"This will mean probably as much to me as anytime in my life," said Pitino, who is a partner in a group that owns seven horses.

Pitino will be surrounded by family, just as he was after Louisville (33-4) overcame a 20-point deficit for a 93-85 overtime victory over West Virginia last Saturday in the Albuquerque Regional final. Not only did Pitino’s five children pour out of the stands to congratulate him, but so did his six nieces and nephews, who had lost their fathers.

Pitino’s brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Minardi’s two teenage boys, Willie and Robert, ran out of the stands at the Pit, along with their younger sister, Christine, to congratulate Pitino.

A few months before 9/11, Pitino lost another brother-in-law, Don Vogt, when he was struck and killed by a cab in New York City. Vogt’s three teenage children, Devin, Billy and Patrick, got hugs from their uncle Rick. The emotion of the moment at midcourt overwhelmed Pitino, who wiped tears from his face.

"To be honest, I have to say, from what I can remember, it was the happiest I’ve ever seen him," said Pitino’s son, Richard, a 22-year-old senior at Providence. "The Boston days were tough, and with all we went through with our uncles, you could see now where life’s starting to get better again."

The death of Minardi struck Pitino hard. The two had been best friends since high school, talked a few times every day and were considered virtually inseparable. Minardi died a few months after Pitino took over at Louisville. He was stung so deeply he considered taking a year off.

Pitino chose to press on, but the toll of the tragedy was obvious. He would be riding in the car with his assistant coach Mick Cronin, and Willard would call with a funny story. Pitino would instinctively dial Minardi’s number to retell the tale, only to realize seconds later that he was not there to pick up. Other times, Pitino would call Minardi’s voicemail just to hear his voice.

"He cried every day for months," Willard said. "He’s over the pain, but he’s not over the emptiness. The loss still haunts him to this day."

Pitino endured by drawing closer to his family and diving into the daunting rebuilding job at Louisville. He lost himself in the gym, engrossed with the nuances of working on his players’ footwork, shooting form and individual workouts. The work ethic involved in rebuilding Louisville was vintage Pitino. It was the same Pitino who was so competitive at Five Star Camps he would regularly get into scuffles during counselor games; the same Pitino who delayed the start of his honeymoon as a Syracuse assistant to fly to Cincinnati to recruit Louis Orr; the same Pitino who would have 11 p.m. practices on New Year’s Eve at Providence and Kentucky, having a midnight toast of water and Gatorade and saying, "There’s not a better party to be at right now."

And just as he did in reviving Boston University, Providence, the Knicks and probation-riddled Kentucky, Pitino has taken a Louisville program that Athletic Director Tom Jurich said barely qualified as a Division I program and in four years has brought the team to the Final Four for the first time since 1986, when Louisville defeated Duke for the national title.

But Pitino has done it in a way that has been deeply gratifying – none of the players in his rotation are McDonald’s all-Americans. (Pitino joked this week that when he won the national title in 1996 at Kentucky, his second team could have won the N.C.A.A. tournament.)

Here, he has built a roster of players he can trust and love. After weeding out the players who did not want to work – including two high school all-Americans – Pitino sentenced his team to the treadmill. The hallmark for Pitino’s team is endurance. Louisville’s lineup is filled with overachieving players who maximize their talent.

"Getting to the Final Four is a testament to how they’ve grown as people and what kind of people that they are," Willard said. "I think that the whole thing of 9/11 let him do that in a much more satisfying and deeper way."

After a chilly initial reception, Pitino has greatly warmed to his players. The senior guard Larry O’Bannon said that during Pitino’s first season, if anyone dared to make a suggestion during a timeout huddle, Pitino would scream at him. But as the seasons have passed and the trust has grown, Pitino is soliciting their advice. O’Bannon said that the players suggested switching on outside screens during the West Virginia game – a key maneuver that fueled the comeback.

O’Bannon added that Pitino took losses in perspective. Riddled with injuries and foul trouble, Louisville lost at Houston this season. Instead of scolding his team, Pitino told his players to call their families and tell them that they love them.

"It’s not life or death like you hear it was at Kentucky," said Cronin, who coached with Pitino for two years before taking over at Murray State. "He still has his emotional moments, but he’s got a veteran team that’s heard his voice for three years. He takes more of an N.B.A. approach in preparing for the season and March."

Streaks of silver dot Pitino’s black hair. But in reality, aside from a softer heart, that’s really the only noticeable change. Much as the cardinal suggested at breakfast five years ago, Pitino has found a comfortable new home. And he’s making sure those around him appreciate it.

"People say that maybe he’s changed or different," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan, who was a star point guard on that Providence Final Four team and was an assistant coach under Pitino at Kentucky. "For me, I see a guy who is passionate about basketball and loves the game and is probably enjoying the journey along the way a little more."

Correction: April 1, 2005, Friday:

A sports article and picture caption yesterday about Rick Pitino, the Louisville men’s basketball coach, credited him erroneously with a precedent. The first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four was C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers; Pitino was the second.

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