As most already know, former Kentucky head basketball coach Rick Pitino was recently nominated for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Pitino, along with 11 others, including Reggie Miller, Ralph Sampson, Maurice Cheeks, Katrina McClain, Bill Fitch, and Dick Motta, will learn their Hall of Fame fate at the Final Four in New Orleans on April 2. The finalists need to receive votes from 18 of the 24 Honor's Committee members in order to be elected.
Pitino, who owns over 600 wins at the college level and has led three programs to the Final Four, has been a head coach at either the collegiate or pro level since 1978, with a two-year head coaching absence in 1984 and '85 when he was an assistant to Hubie Brown with the New York Knicks.
But to truly appreciate the magnitude of what Pitino has accomplished in his nearly 26 years on the bench, one has to examine ...
Pitino the Re-Animator
Pitino took over a struggling Boston University basketball program in 1978, at the age of 25. The Terriers had not experienced a winning season since 1973, and only one winning year in the previous eight seasons. The combined record of the team the previous five seasons was 9-16, and BU had exactly one post season appearance on its resume,' in 1959, nearly 20 years prior to Pitino taking the head coaching job.
Perhaps foreshadowing what would be a career spent revitalizing downtrodden programs, Pitino immediately turned around BU's basketball fortunes by recording a 17-9 record in his initial season. In 1980, Pitino led the Terriers to their first post-season basketball in 21 seasons, as BU posted a 21-9 record and lost in the second round of the NIT.
In 1983, Pitino's last at BU, he led the Terriers to the NCAA Tournament, losing in the first round.
Pitino posted a somewhat remarkable 91-51 mark in his five seasons at BU, and left the school as its most successful basketball coach in history. He was twice named New England Coach of the Year (1979, 1983).
In 1985, after two years working as an assistant on Hubie Brown's New York Knicks staff, Pitino was lured back into the college game to take the head coaching position with the Providence Friars, a once proud basketball program which was floundering after joining the Big East Conference for the 1980 season.
Providence, which between 1964 and 1978 had participated in eight NCAA Tournaments, recorded one winning season in the seven years prior to Pitino's arrival. The team's average record in those seven seasons, 11-17.
Once again, Pitino's hiring quickly paid major dividends, this time in the form of the Friars posting a 17-14 record, and making the school's first post season appearance (NIT) since 1978.
In 1986, Pitino's second and final season with Providence, the NCAA, after six years of experimentation among some conferences, adopted the 3-point shot.
Famously, Pitino was the first coach to take full advantage of the extra-point shot, realizing many of his team's deficiencies could be masked by the 3-pointer. And in an historic 1987 season, Pitino led tiny Providence College to a 25-9 record and the school's third Final Four appearance.
Pitino then left Providence with a two-year record of 42-23 to take the head coaching position with the New York Knicks.
University of Kentucky
After spending two years as the head man of the Knicks, two years in which Pitino posted a 90-74 mark, leading New York to an Atlantic Division title and conference semifinal appearance (its first playoff appearance in four years), Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton persuaded Pitino to take the Wildcat's head coaching job, even though the UK basketball program was in turmoil.
Bereft of the big time talent those who root for the 'Cats are accustomed to, and facing three years of NCAA-mandated probation, a two-year post season ban, with no live television for the 1989-'90 season, Pitino was charged with restoring the lost luster to the University of Kentucky basketball brand, once the grandest college basketball program in the land.
Most predicted it would take Pitino between five and 10 years before he brought Kentucky back from the brink of extermination, but Pitino was having none of that. He instead relied on the 3-point shot (hence the nickname of his first team, Pitino's Bambinos), conditioning (hence the trash cans which lined the perimeter of the practice floor), and relentless, full court pressure defense to mold his team of never-had-beens into a squad which won an astounding 14 games in his first season, when most thought a five-win season was the awaiting punishment. Excitement became the key word, though. Pitino had put the excitement back into Kentucky basketball.
Pitino, in addition to being an innovator --first at Providence, then at UK -- as it pertains to the use of the 3-point shot, was also one of the first college coaches to closely track deflections as a measure of a team's and individual's defensive performance, so much so, that "deflection" became part of the Commonwealth's lexicon.
Hitting the recruiting trail with a vengeance, Pitino brought to Kentucky Jamal Mashburn, perhaps the most important recruit in UK history. For after the scandal of Eddie Sutton's tenure, and the ensuing NCAA probation, UK was no longer a desired destination for the nation's high school elite. But Mashburn bought-in to what Pitino was selling, and thus hastened the Wildcat's return to prominence.
Going 22-6 in his second year at UK, Pitino's Wildcats won the SEC regular season title (even though the league does not recognize the accomplishment), something most followers of the program thought would not happen for several years. But Pitino, with his charisma softening his sometimes harsh methods with his players, won over a fan base starving to be legitimate NCAA title contenders once again.
And title contenders the 'Cats were in 1992, Pitino's third year in Lexington, and the first year UK was eligible for the NCAA Tournament since 1988. The Unforgettables, as they are now famously known, had been tutored by Pitino for two years, and were beginning to look strikingly akin to a well-oiled machine. But it was the addition of Mashburn, and his ridiculous skill set, which filled in the final, masterful, piece of the puzzle.
It is a team adored and revered by most Kentucky basketball fans, not because of its Elite Eight appearance, or the way the team lost The Greatest Game Ever Played. Rather, it's the evolution of a team of nobody's (at the college level) into a squad capable of playing near-perfect basketball, which drives the adoration.
It took a Christian Laettner 15-foot, overtime dagger to end Kentucky's dream run, but without Pitino the Unforgettables would have been quickly dismissed as "that dark period" in Kentucky basketball. Don't believe me? Ask one of them.
In the years to follow, Pitino led UK to three Final Fours ('93, '96, '97), and National Championship No. 6 in 1996. He also guided the 'Cats to the Elite Eight on two occasions ('92, '95). Pitino's overall Big Dance record while with the 'Cats stands at 22-5, an .815 winning percentage. In addition, and extraordinarily, Pitino won 17 SEC Tournament games and five titles, losing only one game in his six conference tourney appearances.
Pitino, during his time at Kentucky, re-built the Wildcat empire by demanding extraordinary effort and commitment from each of his players, and selling his charges on the beauty of winning as a team without thought given to personal wants. The fact that Pitino accomplished the nearly impossible is commendable, but to do it at Kentucky, one of the three or four preeminent programs in college basketball, elevates the achievement to legendary status, and all but ensures his legacy is appreciated for its unique renown.
Pitino left UK in 1997 after winning 219 games and losing only 50, with 14 of those losses coming in his first year. In fact, if one takes away that initial year on the UK sideline, Pitino's record at Kentucky sits at 205-36, an incredible .851 winning percentage.
Pitino's legacy at Kentucky is not that he brought UK back from the shame of probation, but how lightening quick he achieved the turnaround, and the fact that he accomplished such great things without a hint of trouble with NCAA enforcement -- historically, a rare thing indeed for the Wildcats.
Pitino's banner hangs in the Rupp Arena rafters, a clear indication that his time at UK remains his finest coaching hour.
University of Louisville
Pitino of course left UK for the Boston Celtics, where he held several job titles, including head coach, general manager, and team president. But it wasn't a pleasant experience, as Pitino never fielded a winning team, finally leaving Boston with a record of 102-146 in three-plus years on the job.
Finding comfort in the college ranks, Pitino took over the University of Louisville basketball program in 2001 after long-time head coach (and Hall of Fame member) Denny Crum was forced out after a four-year slide.
Taking over a team that won only 12 games the previous year, and averaged a 16-16 record during Crum's fateful final four seasons, Pitino once again wasted no time in establishing himself as master re-builder, as he led the Cardinals, once one of the premier programs in college basketball, to 19 wins. While Pitino's first UofL team had more talent than his first UK squad, the 19 win total resonated sweetly with Cardinal fans, as many thought it would take much more time to re-erect the Louisville program from the ashes of mediocrity.
But in no time at all, Pitino had the Cards back among the nation's elite, posting a 25-7 mark his second year at Louisville. Two years later, Pitino had the Cardinals back in the high life after recording a 33-5 record, and making the school's first Final Four appearance since 1986, also UofL's last national title year.
In his 10 full seasons with Louisville, Pitino has won 24-plus games six times, and 30-plus games twice. Pitino's record at Louisville is currently 267-103, a winning percentage of .722. His NCAA Tournament mark at UofL is 12-6. This, after UofL posted a combined .500 winning percentage the four years prior to Pitino's arrival.
In the 2005-'06 season, Pitino oversaw UofL's introduction into the Big East Conference, one of the most talent-laden basketball leagues in the nation. He is signed-on to coach Louisville through the 2016-'17 season.
The Final Score
- Pitino, in his 25-plus years on the bench, is one of only eight coaches to take four different teams to the NCAA Tournament. He is one of 10 coaches who have been to at least five Final Fours. He's one of only two coaches to lead three different schools to the Final Four.
- Pitino, with his 38-15 NCAA Tournament record, owns the 7th highest winning percentage (among active coaches) in NCAA Tournament games at .717.
- Pitino has never, as a head coach, had anything more than a very minor NCAA infraction occur on his watch, and he cleaned up the Kentucky program, effectively telling the boosters to shove-off by severing booster/player contact.
- Pitino has won 619 games and lost 227 in his 25-plus seasons, for a winning percentage of .732.
- Pitino has coached in two NCAA Championship games, winning one (1996) and losing the other (1997).
There really isn't a viable debate, in my view, about Pitino's worthiness for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Pitino's outstanding record speaks for itself, and the intangibles, such as his ability to get his players to believe in themselves, along with the artful way he pushes the right buttons with his players, as well as his penchant for performing his best coaching job when faced with an undermanned roster, are all part and parcel to his nearly unparalleled success, and are additional reasons Pitino richly deserves to be honored with a Hall of Fame nod.
Sure, he's had a few hiccups along the way, both personally and professionally, but I say, show me someone who hasn't.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!