ATLANTA — Think about where Rick Pitino was four years ago, as Karen Sypher dragged him through what was likely the most embarrassing scandal in the history of college athletics.
Then think about where he was just two years later, as he lost his second straight opening round NCAA tournament game while watching arch-nemesis John Calipari lead arch-rival Kentucky to the Final Four. Think about where he was after last year’s Final Four, when he not only lost to those Wildcats in New Orleans, but he had to watch them win the National Title afterwards while everyone proclaimed Kentucky to be the next college basketball dynasty.
There were a lot of people that didn’t think that Pitino would still be coaching right now, and yet there he was on Monday night, cutting down the nets after his Cardinals won him his second national title in a thriller over Michigan, 82-76.
It wasn’t just the ring that Pitino won, however.
It was his horse that won the Santa Anita Derby and qualified for the Kentucky Derby. It was his son, Richard, getting hired to be the next head coach at the University of Minnesota. It was the announced that he had been elected for induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame. And all of that happened as he became the first coach to win a championship at two different schools.
“It’s been the most unbelievable week that a guy can go through in sport,” the younger Pitino said after the game. “I’m really proud.”
But here’s the thing about Pitino: he did everything that he could to share the credit for this title with those around him. Somewhere deep down, there’s an ego that needs to be stroked, but that wasn’t happening on this night. When asked what it means to win a title and get named to the Hall of Fame in the same day, Pitino said “players put coaches in the Hall of Fame.” When asked about the emotions that with hearing that final buzzer sound, Pitino told a long and rambling — and heart felt — story about how he gave the jersey he received from the Hall of Fame to his sister-in-law, who lost her husband and her brother within a five-month span and who overcame alcoholism to raise three kids.
I believe it.
I don’t think this is an act.
You can see it in the way that he interacts with his players. How long would Russ Smith have lasted on the Louisville roster if this was six or seven years ago? But Smith not only has thrived under Pitino, he became an all-american after he actually wanted to leave the program and now the two have the most charmingly dysfunctional relationship between a coach and a player in the country. Pitino can needle him about not listening to him at the same time that he praises Smith for going shirtless and painting his chest to women’s soccer games.
Pitino cares. He really, truly cares about his players, and that may be the reason that he is able to get so much out of them. It’s not that difficult to leave it all on the floor for a coach that you believe is family.
“It feels amazing to get this win for him,” Peyton Siva said. “Playing for a great guy, not just from coaching, just a great father figure.”
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.