What Rick Pitino has done at Louisville isn't impossible, but it should have been. The Cardinals aren't the top basketball program in their state. Sometimes not even in their city. But they're No. 1 in the country?
Down the road from John Calipari?
It's impossible, or should be. Calipari is a force of nature, the most powerful coach in college basketball -- he recruits at a level we've never seen, and he coaches at a level that may elude rival fans but wows rival coaches -- and he's in the prime of his career. Last season Kentucky won the national championship. Next season he will unveil perhaps the greatest freshman class of all time. That's quite a Calipari sandwich.
But that creamy filling in the middle is the most decorated regular-season team in Louisville history.
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Speaking of impossible ...
Hard to believe, but Louisville -- a school with two national championships and nine Final Four appearances -- had never been ranked No. 1 during the regular season by the Associated Press until this week.
Getting there now, in that state, with Kentucky in the middle of a run historians will remember as dynastic, is absurd. Never mind that Kentucky is unranked at the moment and not assured of reaching the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have made two consecutive Final Four appearances, and next season -- when those new freshmen arrive -- they'll be favored to get there again. This is a dynasty we're watching unfold, even if this is a down season we're watching crumple.
But enough about Kentucky.
Well, maybe not. See, it's incomplete -- even unfair -- to describe what Pitino is doing at Louisville without going into painful detail about the monstrosity 75 miles away in Lexington, a monstrosity that dominates the rest of the state and even makes its presence felt in the city of Louisville.
Two months ago I wrote about the Auburn football coaching search and said only a dummy would want that job given the impossibility of succeeding in that sport, in that state, in this moment in time -- with Nick Saban having Alabama in the middle of a dynasty down the road in Tuscaloosa.
The analogy works. Saban is the Calipari of college football. Alabama is the Kentucky. And Auburn is the Louisville -- great programs with national championships of their own, absolutely, but still the second program in their own state. It's not easy being No. 2 -- and Auburn fans, you know what I'm talking about. It can be hard, suffocating even, to be an Auburn fan when Alabama is competing regularly for national championships. At Louisville, it's the same.
And that's just being a fan.
Imagine being the coach.
Impossible, as I say, to succeed at the level Pitino has succeeded while Calipari is doing his thing in Lexington. And I say that knowing full well how good Pitino is. He won a national title in 1996 at Kentucky, and he put together that '98 team Tubby Smith guided to another title. Pitino was the first coach in college basketball history to take three different schools to the Final Four. Calipari, of course, became the second. Point being, Pitino is the goods. He's not in the Naismith Hall of Fame, but he will be some day and in the meantime his omission is ridiculous. If you were to list the top coaches in college basketball history, you might not start with Rick Pitino -- but you wouldn't get far before calling his name.
The man's good. Great, even. But what he's doing now, the way he has Louisville thriving even as Calipari is rewriting history up the road, is startling. And there are some Kentucky fans who appreciate it. I know these people, and I know how conflicted some of them are by Pitino's presence at Louisville, even 11-plus years after he took the job. Pitino didn't just win a national title at Kentucky -- he brought Kentucky back from the dead, back from scandals and NCAA probation and a 13-19 crater in 1989 under Eddie Sutton.
This state, these people, love Kentucky basketball -- and Pitino put Kentucky back on top.
So they're conflicted. They love him, but loathe him. Although he has taken some shots at the rabid UK fan base, when Pitino retires I suspect he will be embraced again by Kentucky. It will take a few years, and it might take a new UK coach -- one who never engaged Pitino as ferociously as Calipari has had to do it -- but Pitino will take his place in beloved Kentucky lore ... some day.
For now, though, he's at Louisville. And he has the Cardinals ranked No. 1 in America.
Which is, in its own way, as impressive as anything Rick Pitino has ever done.