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National Columnist

Back in title game, Louisville's Rick Pitino sports new role: Big softy!

ATLANTA -- Rick Pitino isn't what he was. What was he? Never a mean guy. Never a bully to his players or a jerk to the media. Never someone to fear or loathe.

But he wasn't what he is now.

What is he? He's cuddly. He's approachable. He's adorable.

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And before we go further, I have to address the Karen Sypher story. I have to. Don't really want to, Louisville fans, but have to. And if by the time you get to the end of this story and think I don't like Pitino, then you missed the point. Because I like Rick Pitino very much. Did I always? No. And some of that is my fault, because as a fan of John Calipari -- and I am -- I fell for the trap that said, "If you like Calipari, you must dislike Pitino." And believe me, that's an unwritten rule in the media. Most of us have taken a side, and for years that was me. But not anymore. Now I'll take both sides, because I like 'em both.

The Sypher thing is the proverbial gorilla in this room, though. Write a story about Pitino the person, especially a positive one, and that's the issue the other side will throw at your face -- and I'm not telling you not to throw it in my face. Just telling you, that story was a personal story for Pitino. A window into his soul? Hell, I don't know. It was a mistake he made, and it was a mistake that required some tough decisions, and he made the decisions he made. Judge him for that? You can. Not me. Not on that. His business, not mine.

What is my business? Pitino the man -- today. Who he is as opposed to who he was back in the day, and not way back when he was at Providence or Kentucky or even in the NBA. I mean, the man he was five years ago at Louisville, when he was less forgiving of players, coaches, media, anyone in his path. He wasn't a jerk, but he was hard. Now?

"He's a soft guy," Peyton Siva told me.

Now he is. But then? Listen to what Andre McGee, Louisville's director of operations and a Cardinals guard under Pitino from 2006-09, told Jeff Goodman:

"Rick the ruler has faded," McGee said. "These guys have no idea."

Well, not entirely true. Russ Smith has an idea. He's the most talented and most infuriating player on Louisville's a roster, a guard prone to such wild swings on the court that Pitino nicknamed him -- and then named one of his racehorses -- Russdiculous. As a freshman, Russ Smith ticked Pitino off. It was so bad that Smith said he considered transferring after that season.

"I was leaving," he said.

But his dad talked him out of it, and Russ Smith came back, and the softening of Rick Pitino continued. People close to Pitino say Smith is a major reason why Pitino has mellowed. They give other reasons, including the mellowing that age can bring as well as Pitino's affection for all the players on this team, most notably upperclassmen Siva and Gorgui Dieng.

But Russ Smith is special in a vulnerably charming way, and he requires a special kind of patience. He wore down Pitino, won him over, changed him over time.

"My freshman season," Smith said, "I was always in the wrong. ... But now coach is proud of me, and that means everything."

Pitino used to coach his players with more anger, impatience. Make a mistake and you're going to hear it on the sideline. It still happens when a player is benched and walks past Pitino as he breathes fire, but now Pitino will make it a point to seek out the player a few minutes later on the sideline, during a break in the action, to say something soothing. He has figured out what some coaches -- Mike Rice comes to mind -- never get: Players will play their best for you if they believe you truly care about them. Pitino cares. His players know it. The media can see it.

If you could have seen his press conference Sunday, you'd have seen that, too. Pitino makes it work when he has to sit at the podium alone, but when he's surrounded by his players he's having a great time. Every answer is a chance to tease one of them, smile at them, make it clear how much he likes them. When a reporter asked Pitino about his "four-year journey" with Dieng -- a junior who is turning pro after this season -- Pitino corrected the reporter and chided Dieng and made his affection clear all in one answer:

"Gorgui is a three-year [player]," Pitino said. "If he plays like last night, it will be four years."

Pitino started giggling and didn't stop. He was squinting as he giggled with glee. He is 60, but he looked 12.

Pitino kept talking, and soon he had given some insight into four of the five players next to him: Dieng, Chane Behanan ("I get on Chane unmercifully, and he gives me that look"), Siva ("listens to every little thing") and Smith ("I don't even bother, because he doesn't listen to a word I say"). Something inside Pitino clicked, and he realized he hadn't said a word about the fifth player on the podium, sophomore Wayne Blackshear. So Pitino paused and told a quick story about Blackshear, concluding that Blackshear sometimes wishes he could play more but is "the biggest cheerleader on the bench."

Pitino enjoys every single one of these guys, you can see that, but Russ Smith is the one who melts his heart. Time and again he comes back to Russ, poking his mercurial scoring leader with a velvet stick, telling the media that Smith once took off all his clothes -- "except his underpants, of course" -- and painted himself for a women's soccer game.

"In the cold," Pitino added, smiling, squinting. "Now you see what I'm coaching."

Some people don't like Pitino. That's obvious, and maybe it's even fair. He has been in situations that dig lines in the sand for some people. Fine. But there is this other side to him, this playful side, this loving side. And there's the side he showed his longtime media relations director, Kenny Klein, who turned 50 a few years ago and had the bad luck of reaching that milestone on the day of a game. And on this day, Pitino told Klein he was having a bad day.

Pitino told Klein he couldn't coach. Personal reasons. A press release had to be prepared. They walked out of Pitino's office and stepped outside, still discussing the press release, when Pitino walked Klein up to a brand new Lexus. Red. Convertible.

"Happy birthday, Kenny."

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