Failures, stumbles on Pitino's road to greatness only made him better
Rick Pitino is already one of the all-time greats, a Hall of Fame coach fresh off a national title. While he makes it look easy, his journey to the top was anything but smooth.
Back in the mid-1980s, it's unlikely that too many Americans were taking advice from the former Soviet Union. You know, that pesky Cold War and everything.
Don't throw Rick Pitino into that group, though.
"I learned the most valuable lessons from the Russians," the legendary college basketball coach said by phone last week.
That might need some context.
Back in 1986, Pitino was coming off his first season at Providence, and while the Friars had drastically improved, he needed something to get them to the next level. Fortunately, college basketball was about to introduce the 3-point shot -- and Pitino was ready to take advantage of the extra point.
"I thought, 'I'm gonna use this as a gimmick,'" he said. "John Thompson, Louie Carnesecca, they're not going to buy in. I'm going to make sure that we shoot it and that we stop it. We're going to lead the nation in 3-point shooting."
Originally, the plan was to take 15 3-pointers per game, with a goal to make six of them. That all went out the window during an exhibition game against a team from Russia. The European team shot 28 3-pointers against Providence, and it completely changed how Pitino viewed the 3-point shot.
"I knew nobody else was going to buy into it," he said. "We led the nation that year, and went to the Final Four."
And the rest is history.
Pitino has become one of the best college basketball coaches in the past three decades, winning two national championships and going to seven Final Fours with three different programs.
Over his last 18 seasons coaching in college, he has been to 16 NCAA tournaments, advancing to at least the regional final in 10. Pitino went to six Final Fours in that span, capped by back-to-back Final Fours the last two seasons with Louisville – which, of course, included a national championship last March.
He hasn't just done it at one school, or with one group of players, or in one era of college basketball. It's been consistent success at three different programs.
"You build a culture around what you're trying to do," Pitino said. "If you get players to buy into your culture, then you'll be successful. I don't there's any magic wands."
Pitino might have found the right formula for success in the college game, but it certainly hasn't been as easy as it sounds. He has hit several roadblocks, and there were times during his coaching career where it seemed like his best days might be behind him.
After eight seasons at Kentucky, Pitino made a return to the NBA. He had coached the Knicks for two seasons from 1987-1989, winning the Atlantic Division in his final season. Despite success in Lexington, Pitino got the itch to go pro again -- this time with the Boston Celtics. It wasn't just head-coaching duties, though; Pitino was also the president of the organization.
It wasn't a successful stint, as the Celtics never finished better than fifth in the Atlantic Division under Pitino's watch. He resigned after 34 games in the 2000-01 season, taking the Louisville job the following season.
But should Pitino have gone to the NBA in the first place? He was on top of the coaching world at Kentucky, winning the title in 1996 and losing in the championship game in 1997. He could have built a dynasty in Lexington.
"I was ready to leave Kentucky," Pitino said. "I was the only coach to leave Kentucky on a high note, without anything going wrong. I had eight years of Camelot; every single day was great. I don't regret it because I learned so much in Boston. I learned why we failed; I learned how to do it better the next time. I learned about humility. I grew with the Celtics."
It didn't take Pitino long to regain his winning ways, leading Louisville to a Final Four in 2005. The Cardinals were one of the most consistent programs in the country, winning at least 24 games in five of his first eight seasons -– but then came another crossroads for Pitino. And this one nearly forced him out of Louisville.
In April 2009, Pitino announced that he was the target of an extortion attempt by Karen Sypher, the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher. In August of that year, Pitino admitted to have sexual relations with Karen Sypher -- and some people called for his firing or resignation.
And Pitino was willing to do whatever the hierarchy at Louisville wanted him to do. He was ready to step down if they wanted.
"One of the vice presidents said to me, 'Why don't you take a leave of absence?'" Pitino said. "But [athletic director] Tom Jurich said, 'If he steps down for a day, I leave as athletic director.' And that was the end of it.
"It was my fault. I was certainly blackmailed, but it was my fault for being within 100 yards of that situation. You have to decide, 'Do you want to continue? Are you willing to put up with everything, not answer back, eat humble pie, and move on?' The answer had to be yes or I had to leave. I had to be humble about it. It was a strong lesson learned in my life."
Challenges and doubters. Pitino seems to relish them. It happened when he was going against Thompson and Carnesecca; it happened when he failed with the Celtics; and it happened again during the 2009 extortion scandal.
Outside of Lexington, there just aren't too many people doubting Pitino anymore. And with a national championship just eight months ago, there aren't many more challenges for Pitino either.
What's next? Well, winning back-to-back national championships would put him in elite company, but he's not really thinking about it that way.
"I don't want to be arrogant enough to think you can win back-to-back championships," Pitino said. "If you can advance and move on, and have a chance, so be it. I don't have goals to go to Final Fours. Just every single day, make the team the best they can be."
Although he's already in the Hall of Fame, Pitino could cement himself even further among the greats with another title. And Louisville might have the players to do it again.
They certainly have the coach.
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