Humbler Pitino appreciates current success
ATLANTA — It's good to be Rick Pitino these days.
Top-seeded Louisville is playing for the national championship, giving Pitino a chance to be the first coach to win titles at two different schools. His son, Richard, is the new Minnesota coach. One of his horses has a spot in the Kentucky Derby after coming from behind to win the Santa Anita Derby.
Oh, and Monday morning, the Hall of Fame will make it official, announcing Pitino as one of its newest inductees.
“You take it in stride,” he said Sunday. “I try not to ever get too low. I fight adversity as hard as I can fight it, not get too low. When good things happen, I don't really embrace it. I just say it's a lucky day.”
The Cardinals (34-5) play fourth-seeded Michigan (31-7) on Monday night, with Louisville an early 4 1⁄2-point favorite.
Pitino has come a long way from the brash coach who led Kentucky to the national title in 1996. A long way, even, from the coach whose buttoned-down reputation was left in tatters following an extortion case four years ago that exposed the messy details of his private life. He's learned humility late in the game, and he — and his players — are all the better for it.
“If I had one regret in life, it wouldn't be what you think,” Pitino said. “It's that I wasn't more humble at an earlier age.”
The comeuppance began in Boston.
Pitino was the hottest commodity in college coaching when he went to the Celtics following that '96 title and another trip to the championship game the next year. But assembling a team in college is different than doing it in the NBA, and Pitino was 102-146 in three-plus seasons.
He returned to the college ranks, taking the Louisville job in the spring of 2001. Six months later, his brother-in-law and best friend died in the Sept. 11 attacks, a loss that cut almost as deeply as the death of his infant son 14 years earlier.
And in 2009, he was forced to admit he'd had a sexual encounter with a woman who later tried to extort millions from him.
But the pain and humiliation ultimately served a greater purpose.
“For the first time in my life, I thought about maybe packing it in and doing something else three years ago,” Pitino said earlier in the tournament. “I said, ‘You know what, I'm not going to do that. I'm going coach as long as I can coach, but I'm going to make one big change. We're going to work just as hard as we've ever worked, if not more, but we're going to have a blast doing it.'
“It's worked very well.”
It's no coincidence that Pitino's new outlook has translated into one of the best runs of his career. The Cardinals have won 30 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, reaching the Final Four each year. The 34 wins this season are a school record, and the 15-game winning streak is the longest in a decade.
Pitino insists the personal accolades mean little. It may have taken a while, but he's learned the best things in his life and career are shared.
“Everything we do is about the team, about the family,” Pitino said. “I want to win because I'm a part of the team.”