The remarkably portable success of Rick Pitino

remarkably-portable-success-rick-pitino
Louisville's Rick Pitino, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. (Howard Megdal)
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With Louisville's 82-76 win over Michigan in an N.C.A.A. championship game with action and skill that lived up to the stakes, Louisville coach Rick Pitino only reinforced what has been clear for some time: he is the greatest itinerant coach in college basketball history.

Though he is far from finished, Pitino is already 22nd on the all-time list for victories among Division I coaches with 662. Early next year, he should pass John Wooden for 21st. Depending on how long the two men atop the list, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim keep coaching at Duke and Syracuse, Pitino would have a great deal of work left to catch either, and he's already 60.

But not all wins are earned in the same way. This is to take nothing away from Krzyzewski or Boeheim, but both have been at a single program that they built into powerhouses decades ago, and have continued to win by adding to what they'd already created.

Pitino, on the other hand, became the first coach to lead three separate programs to a Final Four when he added Louisville in 2004-05 to his Providence 1986-87 team and three Kentucky teams in the 1990s. Monday night, he became the first coach to win national titles at two schools.

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Consider that among the coaches ahead of him on the career victories list, only Eddie Sutton can really be described as having built more than one program. And Sutton's record is hardly exemplary: massive recruiting violations forced his exit from Kentucky four seasons after he left the Arkansas program he built, turning it over to Nolan Richardson; he also exited Oklahoma State after 16 seasons and two Final Fours following an arrest for a D.U.I.-influenced auto accident.

Coincidentally, the resurrection of Kentucky from Sutton's damage is one of the brightest spots on the Pitino resume. After leading a Providence team to the Final Four (and mentoring future coach Billy Donovan in the process), and taking the New York Knicks (and mentoring future coach Mark Jackson in the process) to the N.B.A. playoffs, Pitino took over a Kentucky program that many believed, as hard as that is to conceive of now, had reached the end of its dominance.

Pitino convinced high-profile recruits like Jamal Mashburn to come to Kentucky, even though the program was not eligible for postseason play in Pitino's first two seasons. By year three, Mashburn was the leading scorer on a Kentucky team that lost to Duke, 104-103, in a Regional Final that might have been the greatest college basketball game ever. 

A year later, Mashburn (and future coach Travis Ford) went to the Final Four. Three years later, a group (Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty and Ron Mercer) that looked more impressive at the time than they turned out to be in the pros, likely thnks to Pitino, won the national championship.

A year later, after another Final Four with Kentucky, Pitino took on the challenge of coaching the Boston Celtics. This was the one great team he couldn't resurrect.

So after four seasons, it was back to Louisville, another school that seemed destined for a future of mediocrity. Denny Crum had been masterful, winning national championships with Darrell Griffith and Rodney McCray in 1979-80, then another in 1985-86 with schoolyard star Milt Wagner and center "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison.

But Louisville suffered through two 12-win seasons in Crum's last four; what Pitino took over was a program in need of resurrection. By season two of Pitino's reign in Louisville, he had an overachieving team winning 25 games and the Conference USA title. By 2004-05, he was back in the Final Four. And his past two teams, led by Russ Smith and the expected future coach, mentored by Pitino, Peyton Siva, made a run to the Final Four last season, then marched to a Big East tournament and N.C.A.A. tournament championship over the course of a few weeks.

Pitino rightly received word on Monday that he's getting inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.

And yet, Pitino was a bit overshadowed this time by a team with ridiculously inspiring storylines. There was Kevin Ware, whose leg shattered grotesquely in a Regional Final against Duke, but kept on telling his teammates to win the game en route to the hospital for emergency surgery. There was Luke Hancock, who stayed by Ware's side as he lay on the ground in agony, and, oh by the way, was also trying to win a championship to cheer his ailing father. There was Smith, who played for longtime Archbishop Malloy coach Jack Curran, and upon learning of Curran's death, dedicated this postseason to him. It was all cinematic.

But that group succeeded playing the uptempo, defensive-pressure game that Pitino teams have played for well over three decades. Once again, they succeeded. He's traveled all over the country, to different conferences, different leagues, different basketball cultures. Every time, it seems, Rick Pitino turns his teams into Pitino teams, and into winners.

"Players put you in the Hall of Fame," Pitino said when it was all over Monday night. "Players win you championships. You want to know what you learn along the way? You learn that."

But Pitino hasn't really had many stars at any of his stops. And for all the other storylines, it shouldn't be forgotten that once again, at Louisville, the star is Rick Pitino, the greatest itinerant coach this game has ever seen.