The beatdown that Kentucky laid on Utah was not the only newsworthy nugget to come out of Saturday’s win in Lexington.
At halftime of the game, the Wildcats honored the 1993 Kentucky team that reached the Final Four, but one member of that program was not there: head coach Rick Pitino.
“He was with family and he had things going on,” John Calipari said of Pitino’s absence. “I just said, ‘Look, you need to get up here. This will be respectful here.’ What that program did to change this back, we should recognize it. You may be mad he went to coach at Louisville. So, what? When he was here and when we needed this program on a different track he put it there.”
The levels of the relationship between Kentucky fans and their former head coach are not easily parsed through. The Cliff’s Notes version:
Pitino pulled Kentucky out of the depths that it was left in following the scandal that ran Eddie Sutton out of town. He began his coaching tenure banned from playing on live television for one season and from the NCAA tournament for two. By year three, Pitino had The Unforgettables in the Elite Eight. By year four — the 1993 team — he was in the Final Four. He would go on to win the 1996 national title and, after leaving the team in 1997 for the Boston Celtics, set Tubby Smith up to win the 1998 title.
But after flaming out in the NBA, Pitino returned to the college ranks … to coach archrival Louisville. He eventually would rebuild the Cardinals the way that he did Kentucky, leading the program to the 2013 National Title and a trio of Final Fours before he was fired following the third major scandal of his time as coach.
Think about this as a Kentucky fan. Your beloved coach not only ditches you for the NBA but, after that doesn’t work, returns to coach the team you hate more than anything in the world, building them back into a power over the course of 16 years that culminated in nearly a decade of going head to head with Calipari.
Pitino took the Louisville job in 2001. There are seniors in high school in the state of Kentucky that have known nothing other than Pitino as the coach of Louisville, the man that they are supposed to hate and to mock and to ridicule at every possible opportunity.
So I get it.
But I also think it’s important to note that Pitino did something tremendous for the program. He took Kentucky from the lowest of lows and, by his third season in charge, and them back in the mix as a national title contender.
That should never be overlooked.
And while it may be too soon to welcome Pitino back into Rupp Arena and celebrate what he accomplished, at some point it won’t be.
Because the truth is this: Calipari and Pitino do not like each other, and if Cal is able to put his differences aside and welcome Pitino back, Kentucky fans should, too.
The Unforgettables are called that for a reason, and Pitino, like it or not, was their leader.