Rick Pitino didn’t think he would coach again.
At least that’s what he said. And with Pitino, that’s all you could really go on. How genuine or prophetic those words, you were never sure. The big details — like how much he truly knew about serious NCAA violations at Louisville that derailed his career — to the smaller details, it was complicated with Pitino.
A more timely example: On Saturday, after reaching the NCAA Tournament with Iona, Pitino said he’s planning to end his career there. He also told reporters to stop calling him old: “Although I’m 68, I’m going on 48 with my passion.”
Does anyone think if a bigger school called him after this run, Pitino wouldn’t take the call?
It will probably happen. Because Pitino’s coaching ability was never in question. He’s one of the best ever. That’s reason enough for mild concern at Alabama. This is one of Alabama’s best-ever teams, right up there with the 1987 group that steamrolled into the Sweet 16 — and lost to Pitino and Providence. Thirty-four years later, Pitino is back to show that time is a flat circle, and the great ones may get knocked down and bruised, but they don’t lose what made them great.
“Billy Donovan is not walking through that door,” Pitino joked with ESPN on Sunday night, bringing up that 1987 game and his old Providence sharpshooter.
“We’ll be prepared,” he added, “We know what we’re up against, certainly … We’re going to go into it and play hard, but we know we’re playing a great basketball team (in Alabama) that’s well-coached.”
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Iona probably won’t beat Alabama, but Iona wasn’t supposed to win the MAAC Tournamentas the ninth seed in an 11-team field. The only reason the undermanned, out-of-shape Gaels — their season has been halted four times by COVID-19 — are dancing is as obvious as this week’s dominant storyline for Alabama’s game:
Lazarus, he may be, but this isn’t a story of redemption. It’s recovery. I say this as a former staffer at the Louisville Courier-Journal during Pitino’s demise: I didn’t think he’d coach in college again. No one wanted to touch him, college or NBA. He ended up coaching pro ball in Greece for awhile.
That’s how spectacularly disastrous his end was at Louisville. “I don’t think that opportunity will ever happen again,” Pitino wrote in his 2018 book. “… Louisville fired me so abruptly, it instantly created the impression that I must be guilty of something.”
Abrupt? Well …
Winning coaches can survive major scandals. Will Wade was on the sideline coaching LSU against Alabama in Sunday’s SEC Tournament title game because his school is sticking by him. Because Wade wins.
Coaches on shaky footing get toppled easily: Former Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt, for example.
Pitino was both. A popular misperception is that he was fired — when other coaches were not — solely because of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting that implicated Louisville and a list that included other programs and shoe company Adidas. That was a final straw for Pitino, but his firing had as much to do with a previous NCAA infractions case involving sex parties for Louisville recruits and players in an on-campus dorm, resulting in the Cards being stripped of their 2013 national championship banner.
Athletics director Tom Jurich supported Pitino through that embarrassing scandal. But then the FBI news broke in 2017, and Jurich and Pitino were both quickly gone.
Pitino has obsessively insisted that he didn’t know the actions of his former assistant coaches, either in hiring prostitutes for the parties and in arranging for payments in the FBI case. Some believe him wholeheartedly. Pitino returned to Louisville in 2018 for a book signing and speaking engagement, and roughly 400 fans — of Louisville and rival Kentucky, another of Pitino’s old teams — bought tickets and showed up to applaud him.
“There’s no way I could have known about what went on in that dormitory,” Pitino told them at the time. “There’s no way I could have known what was going on with Adidas.”
Pitino said Saturday that his son Richard had told him to “stop trying to defend your honor, because nobody believes it.”
That’s true. Many people — including a lot of his fellow coaches — have chuckled at the plausibility of a coach as powerful and omnipresent as Pitino not knowing every detail of his own program. Pitino filed lawsuits and wrote a book largely to challenge that presumption.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
The NCAA has been painfully slow to legislate the FBI case. Years later, it has yet to deal out infractions to Louisville — and Pitino, who could still face direct sanctions.
Iona was willing to take that risk, and you see why. Pitino has the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament. There will always be a market for outstanding coaches. Pitino took his timeout and is well into his ascent.
Can’t say I’m glad, necessarily, but I am highly intrigued. I always have been by Pitino.
Whether he’s a hero, villain, victim, deceiver, misunderstood genius or all of the above, college basketball is far more interesting when Rick Pitino is part of it.
Reach Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.