Archive for Friday, April 1, 2005

Commentary: Few build them better than Pitino

Louisville coach heading to Final Four with third different program, and it’s no coincidence

April 1, 2005


— Rick Pitino made history last weekend when he coached his third different team to the NCAA Final Four after Louisville outlasted West Virginia in overtime to win the Albuquerque Regional.

Providence and Kentucky were special. But this one required divine intervention.

When Pitino arrived home late Saturday night, he discovered a portrait of his wife's brother and best friend, the late Billy Minardi, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and died on 9/11, on an armchair facing the TV set.

When the coach asked his wife Joanne about it the next morning, he was told that she and their oldest son Michael's fiance were watching the game when Mountaineers began draining three-pointers, making 14 in the first half, so she took the picture off the mantle and placed it between the two of them. "She told me, 'They were shooting so well and you guys were out of it. Only he could pull us through.' "

The Cardinals wiped out a 20-point deficit, winning even though 6-foot-7 star Francisco Garcia fouled out with 4:10 left in regulation and starting point guard Taquan Dean was playing with a sprained foot.

The Cardinals will play top-ranked Illinois on Saturday in the national semifinals in St. Louis. "This Final Four will mean probably as much to me as any time in my life because I'm going to have a large contingent with me, nieces, nephews, sister-in-laws who have all had tremendous tragedy," Pitino said. "We're all going to be together and it's going to be a special time for everybody."

Pitino plans to make sure his players enjoy the moment, too. "This team is so different. It's not made up of privilege," he said.

The Cards' dramatic victory over West Virginia and Kentucky's subsequent emotional, overtime loss to Michigan State the next day in the Austin Regional final has created major anxiety among diehard Kentucky fans. Aside from Jefferson County, Kentucky always has commanded a lion's share of support in this state. But Pitino is changing the culture, whether Cat fans like it or not. If he becomes the first person to coach two different teams to a national championship, he should be on the fast track for election to the Hall of Fame.

This is the moment Wildcat Nation hoped it would never experience.

Not only is Louisville, Kentucky's bitter rival, going to the Final Four, but so is Traitor Rick. Pitino, the former Knicks coach, used to be King of the Bluegrass after he rebuilt a scandal-plagued empire and led the Wildcats to three Final Fours, including a national championship in 1996, before leaving to take over the Boston Celtics. When Pitino returned home and took the Louisville job in 2001, he set off a firestorm that still has not completely subsided.

Pitino's successor, Tubby Smith, won a national championship at Kentucky in 1998 with Pitino's players, but the Cats have not been back to the Final Four since, which hasn't done much for their fans' fragile psyches. There was even speculation the seven-year itch would push the highly successful, but suddenly tortured Smith to Virginia, which apparently had him on top of its wish list. But Smith met with UK AD Mitch Barnhardt and said he would definitely honor the remaining six years of his contract.

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