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Forgiving Pitino

The buzz around the Big Blue Nation the last few days has been all about a long-time equipment manager tragically departed and a former coach who went to Kentucky's #1 rival.

What a strange story.  It is the story of a humble man who labored, for the most part, in anonymity far behind the scenes at Kentucky basketball.  Eventually, his longevity in the position led to him being recognized for what he truly was, despite the blue-collar nature of his employment -- an integral and critical part of the Kentucky program, and a major contributor to its success.

But it is also the story of a brash New Yorker who stormed into Lexington to be crowned the King of the Bluegrass, and even after the nadir of Kentucky's Shame made the seemingly impudent promise, "We will win, and we will win right away."  When Kentucky did win right away, despite being left with a team that might not have been able to win at most Division II schools, a legend was born.  This young New Yorker was also an indispensable part of Kentucky's resurrection and success, delivering one championship banner to Rupp Arena's hallowed rafters and nearly delivering a second the very next year.  That same cocky young man left the Kentucky job eight years later to chase the siren's song of earning millions restoring one of the NBA's great programs, only this time he did not succeed.  His failure lead him back to Kentucky, to take over the main rival of the Wildcats, be branded a traitor, and earn the visceral loathing of many UK fans.

Thursday, Rick Pitino gave a requiem for Bill Keightley.  If you haven't seen it at Kentucky Sports Radio (or others), the UK website has a transcript here.  It was moving and elicited strong emotions from the Big Blue Faithful.  It was also a fitting tribute to Keightley from a man Coach Pitino always considered a friend, even after he took over the reigns of a basketball team Mr. Keightley transparently detested (in the competitive sense only, I'm sure).  Coach Pitino's commentary was completely fitting for the moment, and drew accolades around the state from Kentucky fans and media types alike, as well as calls for fans of the Big Blue to forgive Rick Pitino the unforgivable transgression he made against Kentucky fans -- leading our most bitter rival into battle against us.

While Mr. Keightley's passing was the occasion, this article is not about that.  I have said my goodbyes to Mr. Wildcat, and I will never watch another Kentucky game that I do not see him there at the head of the bench.  This story is about the rift between Rick Pitino and the Big Blue Nation, and an examination of the love/hate relationship that has developed there.  It is fitting and right that we look at this issue, because Bill Keightley had to face it much more often and more forcefully than any of us did, and thus his passing presents the perfect opportunity for commentary.  Here was a man who's undisguised loathing of the Cardinals was legendary, yet who's affection for the coach of that program was able to withstand even that most deadly of insults.  Mr. Keightley came to terms with the fact that his friend had, in a way, betrayed the team he loved and dedicated most of his adult life to.  The term "betrayal" is certainly a bit strong to describe the relationship in question, since coaching a rival team is certainly not on par, in a real sense, with what we generally consider "betrayal" to mean.  But when we consider the extraordinary passion this state has for basketball, "betrayal" is as apt a description as any.

Personally, I have no animus toward Rick Pitino.  He is a fine coach and a good man, as far as I know.  I have listened to his talks, and he is an outstanding motivational speaker.  Of all the coaches Kentucky has had in my life, he is by far the most eloquent and persuasive, and loves to get in front of a crowd.  He has no fear of words, and no fear of failure before thousands or even millions.  I have no doubt whatever that Pitino meant every word he spoke about Bill Keightley, and that every single emotion expressed in his speech was completely heartfelt and genuine.  Keightley and Pitino were friends, and that friendship did not end when they became members of a rivalry as bitter as any in sports.

I have also not forgotten that Rick Pitino coached Kentucky to a national championship in 1996, and to the national finals the following year.  But for an unfortunate injury to Derrick Anderson, I believe Pitino would have delivered two national championship banners to Rupp Arena's rafters instead of just one.  He was and is a great coach, and despite protestations to the contrary, represents the archetype for most Kentucky fans of what the UK coach should be -- fast-paced basketball, eloquent off the court, great recruiter and nationally respected.  The fact that he now coaches a team almost universally despised by Kentucky fans is an intolerable provocation, and it is entirely understandable that many Kentucky fans have come to detest Pitino almost as much as the program he coaches.

So unlike John Clay, whom I deeply respect, Matt Jones and other well-intended calls for everyone to let bygones be bygones, I will not join them.  Bill Keightley was a personal friend of Pitino, and friendships mean a lot more than fan-coach relationships.  It is laudable and entirely praiseworthy that Mr. Wildcat was able to overcome his partisanship, but it is another thing to ask a fan, who knew Pitino only by his coaching and public utterances, to do so.  Even though I admire Coach Pitino's accomplishments as a coach and a man, and am duly impressed with his wonderful remarks for Bill Keightley, I have no lens of personal friendship through which to view him.  While I am pleased and thankful for his contribution to the Big Blue Nation's mourning of Mr. Wildcat's passing, Pitino didn't make his remarks for me, or for any other Kentucky fans -- he made them for his friend, Bill Keightley.  That is right, and just, and as it should be.

In the final analysis, I appreciate the warm feelings many have for Coach Pitino's comments at Mr. Wildcat's memorial.  The words were moving, and touching, and delivered with complete honesty.  But what Rick Pitino represents to Kentucky fans is anathema -- a former beloved Kentucky coach who is helping a bitter rival to the detriment of the Wildcats.  Make no mistake, those two things are completely intertwined -- anything that raises Louisville men's basketball up also drags Kentucky men's basketball down -- that is how rivalries work.  They work that way in recruiting, and in national perception, and in competition for championships and games.  Should we give Pitino some love because of his wonderful comments about Mr. Wildcat?  You bet, and I have and will continue to do so.  But will I cheer for Rick Pitino, or his Cardinal team?  Well, look at it this way: in my ledger of equities, we have one moment of kindness toward a dear friend plus eight years of successfully coaching Kentucky to set against leaving Kentucky for greed, glory and eventual failure plus resurfacing in the college ranks to coach at Kentucky's most bitter rival.

On my balance sheet, the numbers come up red every time.