Former UK head coach Rick Pitino is a lightning rod of controversy. He's a love him or hate him kind of character. Most UK fans despise the "Italian One", but some still admire Pitino, even though he coaches the bitterest of UK rivals. I suppose he deserves credit for all that he accomplished in Lexington. He did after all, revive the greatest college basketball program in the country. And he did it in record time.
Pitino's eight-year record at UK, 219-50 (81.4%) is simply outstanding. If one takes the initial 14-14 campaign off of his record, his winning percentage jumps to 85.1% (better than Rupp's 82.2%). He did what he said he would do; win, and win soon. For that, every UK fan should be grateful.
When Pitino left UK in '97 for the land of money, most fans begrudgingly wished him well. But upon his return to college coaching after failing in the NBA, the "Loafered One" chose unwisely by selecting Louisville as his next job. For this extreme error in judgment Pitino has been banished, along with all of the other neer-do-wells, to persona-non-grata status among Kentucky fans.
But in the interest of reconciliation and goodwill, I reached out to Coach Pitino to gauge his interest in doing an interview with a most excellent of UK blogs. Surprisingly, after maneuvering through fifteen Pitino posse members, Rick agreed to participate in a question and answer session:
ASoB -- Since you left UK in 1997 you've been very busy, what has been the most gratifying achievement you have accomplished since then?
Rick -- "Probably laying the foundation for the success the Celtics are having now."
ASoB -- Really? You think you helped the Celtics achieve the great season they had this year?
Rick -- "Of course. I taught the organization to never again hire a college head coach. I also taught them to draft GOOD players, not mediocre players."
ASoB -- Okay, then. I would have thought your Final Four team of '05 would have been your most gratifying achievement.
Rick -- "No. Those guys were lucky. They drew the same bracket with the worst #1 seed in the history of the Tournament (Washington). They were all right. I thought I coached magnificently, but the players were not what I am used to."
ASoB -- You've had a year to form an opinion on UK coach Billy Gillispie. Do you have any thoughts on Coach Gillispie, and the job he's done so far at UK?
Rick -- "Quite frankly, I think he's crazy, and I wish he would go away."
ASoB -- Uh, fair enough. Coach are you still asked about the Laettner shot?
Rick -- "Yes, and I tell everyone the same thing. Yes, I was trying to win the game. Just because I chose not to guard the passer doesn't mean I was trying to lose, even though that's what happened. And yes, I know I had Andre Riddick on the bench."
ASoB -- Yeah, Riddick had about a 7-foot wingspan, didn't he?
Rick -- "Yes he did, but it was a deceiving 7- feet. The way he arched his back, and slouched so much, his wingspan was only about 4 to 5 feet (he had terrible posture). I felt it wiser to allow Hill room to operate, than put a munchkin on him."
ASoB -- You must be very proud of Billy Donovan. He's won two National Championships, and seems to be building another great team.
Rick -- "You know, the thing about Billy that most people forget is, now he's a great coach and all, but he had a great teacher, too. It isn't often a young coach is able to sponge off of a great basketball mind, but to his credit, he did take advantage of the knowledge he gained."
ASoB -- What is your favorite memory of your years at UK?
Rick -- "Probably the '96 Championship year. I did a terrific coaching job that year. Rarely does such great coaching intersect with above average players."
ASoB -- I hate to bring up bad memories, but do you regret pressing Arizona for the entire '97 Championship game? Miles Simon broke the press like Caracter broke curfew.
Rick -- "My philosophy entering that game was to wear out Simon by allowing him to drive the length of the floor for layups all day. I thought by the last five minutes of the game, he would be worn out. I still feel it is a sound strategy, but I am continuing to hone the process."
ASoB -- Who do you feel was the most important recruit you had in your time at UK?
Rick -- "Jamal Mashburn was my most important recruit, but Tony Delk was the most pivotal."
ASoB -- Coach, do you think the University of Kentucky is still the "Roman Empire" of college basketball?
Rick -- "Yes, and they couldn't have done it without me."
ASoB -- Football season is approaching, what do you think of new UL football coach, Steve Kragthorpe?
Rick -- "I thought Steve was a great hire. I don't need anyone taking the spotlight off of me, or the basketball program. In that sense, he's the man for the job. I thanked my good friend Tom Jurich (UL AD) for hiring Kragthorpe, because I know he won't challenge my need for the ubiquitous media spotlight. I thought I deserved the hire just as much as the UL fans do."
I want to thank Coach Pitino for his time, and for being so candid. Both are appreciated.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!