By Joe Cox
There the proud program was—for not the first time in short memory, embroiled in a nasty controversy, this time caught without an alibi. Athletic director? Gone. Head coach? Long gone. Some thought the program would get the death penalty, and against that backdrop, the program’s most important hire was made. But I’m not talking about Louisville, I’m talking about Kentucky—and Rick Pitino (pictured) was HIRED, not fired as part of that scandal. It hasn’t been all that long ago, although it feels like it today.
How he could coach!
He took Providence to the Final Four, a bunch of short kids and non-athletes who went nose-to-nose with John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas and beat them like a drum. He took the moribund New York Knicks and turned them into 50-game winners and a playoff team.
How he could coach!
At Kentucky in 1989, he inherited a couple of decent players, a few walk-ons, and a handful of short, underrated kids with state ties, who wanted to be good so badly that they didn’t realize that Pitino was coaching them to be something much bigger than they ever had dreamed. They went 14-14 in that first season, and if anyone ever doubts the commitment of Kentucky fans to their team or that sports means more than wins and losses, let them watch those games. Let them see John Pelphrey go from bench ornament to heart and soul of his homestate team. Let them see Deron Feldhaus hang with Shaquille O’Neal, let them see Richie Farmer make big shots, let them see Sean Woods constantly getting better.
That story didn’t end well. A horrific coaching decision and a big play from Christian Laettner kept Kentucky out of the 1992 Final Four. It just delayed Pitino’s coronation. The Wildcats made the Final Four the next year, and three years later, took one of the most talented teams ever assembled to the school’s first NCAA title in 18 years. Pitino held a ridiculously talented team together, possibly because his ego was the biggest one in that locker room.
How he could coach!
But then the same motivation which made Pitino great, which had him outworking his peers, began to undo his career. He left Kentucky—which even he, with his consuming inability to see the big picture, admits was a mistake. He went to the Boston Celtics. Why not? Well, that didn’t end well. He no longer was the biggest ego in the local room, and his teams underachieved accordingly.
And then it was back to college. Urban legend confirms that Pitino had his choice of two jobs—Michigan or Louisville. Had he chosen Michigan, I don’t believe he would’ve been as haunted by his Kentucky glory days. I’m sure he wouldn’t have felt the same pressure to equal Kentucky’s results with a lesser pool of resources at his disposal. We’re probably not where we are today.
But that motivation, that drive, that hubris—the same force that made Icarus fly too close to the sun and burn off the wings that held him aloft—wouldn’t let Pitino be satisfied. Kentucky must be matched. No, surpassed. Corners were cut, associations were made—apparently with the kind of people who could make bundles of cash materialize for prostitutes and questionable recruits. The Karen Sypher incident was embarrassing. The Katina Powell incident was humiliating. This latest incident is fatal… at least, to that great coach buried beneath the hubris.
Rick Pitino is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He raised a championship banner in Lexington, and another in Louisville—although that Louisville one is all but guaranteed to end up coming down now. And the saddest part is that when people look back on his career, they won’t remember full-court presses and Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods. They’ll forget Pitino hugging Anthony Epps in pure exultation after he sealed the 1995 SEC Tournament. They won’t remember blazing through college basketball in 1996. For that matter, they won’t remember that Providence/Georgetown game. They won’t remember Russ Smith and Luke Hancock. They won’t remember those two banners—or that one banner, as it soon will officially be rendered.
They’ll remember the hubris. They’ll remember restaurant trysts, funding of abortion, strippers and prostitutes, and dirty money. And on some level, that’s what should be remembered. No coach at any school at any time is bigger than the game. The rules of the NCAA may be archaic and silly, but they are the rules.
But as a Kentucky fan and writer, that’s a shame. Because there was so much more. I regret that some day when my children are old enough to know the history and Pitino’s name comes up, I’ll have to talk about all of those other things before I can say, “How he could coach!”
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Jamie H. Vaught