On Sunday, September 8, former University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino was inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. As the current coach of the rival University of Louisville Cardinals, many members of the Big Blue Nation have made him, if not public enemy number one, one of the least wanted folks in Wildcat Country. And while, as coach of Little Brother, he deserves a certain amount of derision, to totally make him the worst person on the planet does a bit of disservice to what he accomplished while in Lexington, restoring the greatness back to the program and putting the Cats back on top of the college basketball world.
If you’re not old enough to remember the infamous “Kentucky’s Shame” Sports Illustrated cover, then you may not fully grasp just how bad things were in Lexington. The NCAA had hit the Cats hard (and deservedly so) and the Cats were at their lowest point since before Adolph Rupp. In 1989, then UK Athletic Director CM Newton hired New York Knicks coach Pitino with the sole purpose of returning the Wildcats to their former glory. And Pitino went right to work. He was smug and cocky (a perfect fit for a UK coach) and, with one of the best signings in Kentucky basketball history, landed Jamal Mashburn. In 1992, the Cats gave defending champion Duke all it could handle in what is regarded as the greatest college basketball game ever. In 1993, he took the Cats back to the Final Four. In 1994, he coached the Cats to the greatest comeback in college basketball history with the Miracle at Mardi Gras.
And then, in what I consider the greatest coaching feat in college basketball, Pitino assembled and coached the greatest collection of college basketball talent: the Untouchables, the 1995-96 Kentucky Men’s basketball team. I hold a special affinity for this team as this was my freshman year at the University of Kentucky. From Big Blue Madness and going forward, everyone knew that team was special and everyone just knew that team would win the school’s first NCAA championship since 1978. More than just Xs and Os, Pitino did a masterful job balancing the unbelievable talent and egos on the team and keeping those guys focused on the ultimate goal of winning the title, which they did, setting a record for margin of victory in the NCAA tournament. And for that season alone, I thank Coach Pitino.
Pitino took the Cats back to the NCAA title game in 1997, losing in overtime to Arizona. After that game, the NBA’s Boston Celtics came calling, offering him the keys to one of the league’s most storied franchises and millions and millions of dollars. Quite simply, it was an offer that he couldn’t refuse and I never once blamed him for leaving. IF you’re going leave Kentucky on top, the only place to go would be the Celtics or maybe the Lakers. While in Lexington, he represented the school, the team and the entire Big Blue Nation with class, grace and dignity. Even though, as most Cardinal fans believe, Pitino did not make Kentucky basketball what it is, but did a spectacular job restoring the Cats back to their rightful place among the nation’s elite.
Rick Pitino has won NCAA titles at two different schools. He’s taken three different schools to the NCAA’s Final Four. He’s won a lot games and helped a lot of kids realize their dream of playing in the NBA and helped those that, as the NCAA says, went pro in something else. He’s developed coaches as well, with former assistants becoming head coaches, Tubby Smith and Billy Donovan winning a combined three NCAA championships on their own. And while Pitino has had some moral failings, as we all have, he’s left his mark on the Commonwealth. He returned Kentucky to greatness and made Little Brother respectable. And for that, we should all be thankful and appreciate everything Coach Rick Pitino has done.
Congratulations on the Hall of Fame, Coach Pitino. You earned it.