Joanne Pitino could not watch. It was 2005, she was home in Kentucky, and she was watching her husband Rick and his Louisville team trail by 20 points in the Elite Eight. The Final Four hopes of Cardinals fans were quickly diminishing in Albuquerque, N.M. Joanne then took matters into her own hands and found a framed painting of her late brother, Billy Minardi. She placed it on a chair in the living room and the rest is history.
Louisville would get past John Beilein’s tough West Virginia squad and make it to the Final Four, his fifth overall, but first with Louisville. The win solidified Rick Pitino as one of college basketball’s greatest as he became the first coach to take three schools to the sport’s most elite weekend.
The story is told often by close friends and Pitino’s family. Over the years, from the Bluegrass State to the Big Apple, they all have all remembered Minardi’s presence throughout that tournament.
Some things in life cannot be explained and make very little sense.
Billy Minardi lost his life in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was Joanne Pitino’s brother. He was Rick Pitino’s brother-n-law. Everyone called him Bill or Billy; but his best friend Pitino called him Willie. Willie was a husband and he was a father.
If you’re a fan of Pitino or Louisville basketball, this spring must seem familiar. The team’s defense is a basketball junkie’s dream, and to reach the Final Four without a future lottery pick is what the NCAA tournament is all about. The magical run Louisville is on this month is surreal. But the feeling is “Willie” Minardi all over again.
Nobody had Louisville winning the Big East tournament earlier this month. However, the Cardinals were the last team standing at Madison Square Garden.
They began this tournament by edging out a pesky Davidson team. They battled a very good New Mexico team. They demoralized Michigan State and ended the dreams of Spartan fans everywhere. And a late comeback vs. Florida and former pupil Billy Donovan seemed like something out of a Hollywood script.
But the comeback win against the Gators was not the only story to leave the West Region.
Around the corner from US Airways Arena in Phoenix, Arizona is home to what many locals call the best sports bar in the city.
It’s called Coach & Willie’s.
“To see the name of that place right near the arena was unbelievable,” said Louisville associate coach Richard Pitino. “As soon as my dad saw that, he said we have to go there Saturday night whether we win or lose.”
It was a win, and Willie will be forever linked to yet another Final Four run.
Some things in life can be explained and make a lot of sense.
Vin Parise is the college basketball insider for SportsTalk and NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @VinParise.