Rick Pitino, whose jersey hangs in Rupp’s Rafters for returning Kentucky to prominence and winning an NCAA Tournament championship after the Wildcats program faced the despair of NCAA probation, continues to diminish his once-remarkable legacy as his career winds down.
I’m not going to regurgitate all the troubles he’s had over the last half-decade or so, they are well documented with a simple Google search. Instead, let’s focus on the here and now, and his latest attempt at self-beclowning. Pitino has decided to try to explain his decision to skip the post-game press conference after the Louisville-Kentucky game last Saturday after fairly relentless media criticism of the action. As you might expect, it’s a bunch of rationalizations and BS. But this rings at least partially true:
"But let’s get to the truth of why. Once every two years, it’s an extremely emotional and difficult experience for me to coach in Rupp Arena. I knew that when I accepted the job at Louisville, but it’s never easy. We give them credit for the victory and we hope to grow after the loss."
"Emotional and difficult?" My heart bleeds, coach. Who wouldn’t find it hard to talk about a team that gave a stirring, determined effort in the face of the most hostile and quite possibly largest opposing crowd they will face all season, and just missed pulling off the upset? Yeah, that performance is just real hard to defend. But somehow, even as a Kentucky fan, I think I could do a creditable job — so it should be a bunny for a Hall of Fame coach.
Pitino deserves every iota of criticism he has received, even from normally friendly writers, for doing this. To me, his excuse reads "I just don’t have the stomach for it, and as a bonus, I know it will piss off Kentucky fans. I’m a Hall of Famer, and I can be a petulant, ill-humored, craven lout whenever I want. Up yours." Okay, the "Up yours" may be a bit much, but you get the point.
Facing difficult, emotional situations are what coaches get paid for, and even if they weren’t getting paid for it, it’s something responsible, mature adults do all the time. Pitino doesn’t get off the hook for planning to bail in advance, and I don’t believe him when he says "win or lose" in that context. It’s crap. Pitino knows it, I know it, and everyone who has been paying any attention at all to Pitino over the years knows it. Had Louisville won that game on the last shot, nobody with an ounce of sense believes he wouldn’t have been there at the press table celebrating with his players.
And speaking of the players, the message this sends to Pitino’s young charges is, "When the going gets tough, you can always just bail on your responsibility with a plausible excuse." This is a rivalry game, arguably the biggest and most intense in college basketball (although proponents of the Duke-UNC rivalry can defensibly claim the same), and you just don’t see coaches skipping press conferences for rivalry games. Why? Because it is a rivalry, it’s in the interest of all involved to keep the rivalry a passionate one. Such occasions call for coaches to appear and talk about the result, and skipping out on them is shameful and rude, even if he isn't the first or last coach to do it.
Kyle Ringo of Yahoo’s The Dagger had an interesting take:
The rivalry game with Kentucky is one of the biggest each year for Louisville and it seems like a bad time for the head coach to choose not to talk. It’s also questionable decision-making for a man who is supposed to be setting an example for his players on how to handle adversity.
That is one way of viewing Pitino’s decision and it’s certainly valid to a certain extent.
One could also say it was a wise decision on Pitino’s part not to put himself in a situation in which he might say something he regrets. In that case, he’s certainly providing his players a valuable example.
Ringo is being too fair by quite a lot here. His generosity in that last paragraph above is effortlessly countered by the simple observation that chickening out of a tough situation is never a "valuable example," and if a 63-year old Hall of Fame coach can’t navigate the minefield of his emotions by now, he should be totally embarrassed — or totally retired — you pick. Age and experience are supposed to make you wiser, not an uncontrollable emotional ruin.
There are an endless number of ways to "justify" Pitino’s actions, and Ringo pretty much covers them all — uncontrollable emotionalism, doesn’t-have-to-ism, done-it-before-ism — you name it. All of them would be totally valid had Louisville just played Grand Canyon, Utah Valley or even Michigan State. But when do you ever see a coach in a huge rivalry game avoid the press conference? I can’t recall such a time, although it may have happened.
But perhaps this business is finally becoming too much for Pitino. His much-ballyhooed one-finger salute to a few UK fans on his way off the floor, in combination with the skipped press conference, makes you wonder if he hasn’t lost control of his feelings. If so, may I suggest retirement in dignity rather than doing rampant damage to a great career? After working this long and this hard, it won’t take many of these events to do real harm, as Aaron Torres points out:
If you asked the common fan who is the least likable person in all of college sports, virtually everyone would come up with the same two or three names. Nick Saban would probably be at the top of the list, and Urban Meyer and Lane Kiffin wouldn’t be far behind. Plenty of people would throw out John Calipari’s name, or Coach K’s and maybe even Jim Boeheim’s too.
Yet there’s one guy whose name never seems to come up on these lists, even though his behavior and actions are considerably worse than anyone I listed above. He’s a man who has proven to have virtually no moral compass off the court, and on the court, has a program that is currently in the midst of the NCAA’s crosshairs. And yet despite all that, despite the fact that he continues to make an embarrassment of both his school and himself, he found time to put himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons again this weekend.
That man is Rick Pitino, and while fans continue to dislike Coach K, Calipari and Saban for reasons only known to them, I am here to say that Pitino is, without a doubt, the most impossible person to like in all of college sports. And since no one else is going to call him out for making a fool of himself Saturday I will do so here.
Read the whole thing, if you haven’t. To me, the skipping of the press conference is the most instructive part of the whole affair despite the list of "reasons" Pitino gave to justify bailing on it. I’m not that annoyed about the finger — some exceptionally irksome UK fan could’ve said something disgusting to him to prompt it — and I’ve never asked a coach to be more than human. But in combination with the press conference, it becomes exactly what Torres describes — another in a litany of personal failings that has damaged Rick Pitino’s hard-won prestige significantly.
Has he reached rock bottom yet? I don’t know, but if he has, it wouldn’t shock me if he continued to dig anyway, based on recent events and his own suggestion of uncontrollable emotionalism. Oh, and Rick — the "I get so emotional, baby" excuse is only good in songs. To wit: