Rick Pitino was nowhere to be seen in the Big Blue Nation last month when UK basketball coach John Calipari reached out to the former Wildcats boss for the celebration of UK’s 1993 Final Four team’s 25th-year anniversary held in Lexington. It was Pitino (pictured) who took that team to the school’s first Final Four trip in nearly 10 years.
But Pitino -- who in 1989 took over the Kentucky program in shambles and elevated the Wildcats back to elite level, posting a remarkable 219-50 mark along with the 1996 national title -- thanked Coach Cal for the invitation in a tweet.
Added Calipari, “He was with family and he had things going on. But you know, I just said, ‘Look, you need to get up here.’ They will be respectful here …. we should recognize it. They may be mad he went to coach at Louisville.
“…. What Rick did (here), he deserves to be able to get the respect from what he did here, and I think our fans would be great. You know, he may not think that, but I'm convinced that if he came back, that the fans would be great to him.”
Calipari is also very pleased that ex-UK coach, Joe B. Hall, is treated like a Hollywood celebrity after taking over coaching legend Adolph Rupp in 1972. Hall had three Final Four teams during his 13-year tenure at Kentucky, winning the national title in 1978.
“One of the happiest things for me is when I see how Coach Hall is treated here,” said Calipari. “He's treated like royalty. I love it when he goes out on the court. I love to see him in practice and I love how our fans treat him.
“My guess is, back in the day, they probably weren't as friendly, okay? But now they look at it and say, ‘You know what, who would have followed Adolph Rupp? Who is stupid enough to do that?’ He was. He went to Final Fours, won a national title. Think about it.”
So Calipari would like to see Pitino get more love or respect from the Big Blue Nation and treat him like they do for Coach Hall.
As you’ll recall, Pitino indeed was a very popular guy during his eight years at UK. However, his popularity with the Wildcat faithful nosedived when he became the head coach at rival Louisville in 2001. And his off-the-court troubles at U of L -- Karen Sypher’s extortion case, “Strippergate,” and the FBI investigation of illegal recruiting -- obviously made it worse.
Anyhow, his U of L past is over and we shouldn’t punish him for taking the attractive Cardinals’ job in replacing coaching legend Denny Crum. While I wasn’t that pleased when he came to Louisville nearly two decades ago, I still think we should move on and display good sportsmanship.
Even though Pitino was honored by UK back in 2005 when he was inducted into school’s athletics hall of fame, it would be nice to see the university hold a special “Rick Pitino Night” in front of 23,000 rabid fans at Rupp Arena in the future, recognizing his extraordinary achievement in reviving the Wildcats from the NCAA probation to winning ways.
Former UK All-American Kenny Walker, who played for ex-New York Knicks coach Pitino in the NBA for two years, agreed that it would be good to see Pitino back at Rupp Arena.
“I’m okay with Kentucky recognizing Coach Pitino with a special night or ceremony,” said Walker last Saturday evening. “I understand that some fans hate him for coaching the University of Louisville, but his tenure at Kentucky was very unique. He bought us back much quicker than most fans thought he would and also won a national championship here.
“I think the fans for one night should put aside all of the hate that they have for him now and understand that he did some very special things here at the University of Kentucky. We are not asking him to come back and coach at the University of Kentucky, only to celebrate him for one night. I think he, the fans and the players who played for him deserve that. He is part of the Big Blue Nation whether you like it or not. Coach Pitino should come to grips with this also. I think Coach Cal did a good job of inviting him back. It’s up to him to accept that invitation. I think that he should.”
A national sportswriter likes the idea of seeing Pitino returning to Rupp Arena.
“I think it's highly appropriate for UK to honor Rick Pitino for his work as head coach,” said Mike DeCourcy, a senior writer for Sporting News who will be covering his 30th Final Four in Minneapolis in early April. “His time as Wildcats coach restored the program to its blueblood status following a very difficult time for its fans.
“Obviously, it would have been awkward to honor him during his time as head coach at Louisville. That's been over for a while now. Rick will always be one of UK's greats, one of the most important figures in the program's amazing history. I don't know how one can see it any other way.”
Well, what do the Wildcat fans actually think about having a special Pitino ceremony? I posed the question on my personal Facebook page and received a small sampling of 76 votes with 61 percent of the respondents saying Pitino should be recognized while 39 percent say no.
Also, on Twitter, I had 23 votes with 70 percent indicating that Pitino should be honored. Seventeen percent of the fans said no with 13 percent not sure.
While the results are not scientific, they are sure interesting. As you can tell, some fans still haven’t forgiven the former UK coach. However, a sizeable group of UK fans agree that Coach Pitino, who is now coaching pro basketball in Greece, should be recognized for his miraculous achievement at Kentucky.
Personally, I think having a “Rick Pitino Night” at Rupp Arena would be awesome and it would be a classy move by the school.
But if he doesn’t put in a solo appearance in the next year or so, it still would be great to see Pitino make a return trip when his 1996 national championship team celebrates its 25th-year anniversary in 2021.
That would be another possible way to honor or recognize Coach Pitino in front of the Big Blue Nation.
Are you coming, Coach P?
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo of Pitino by Jamie H. Vaught