The “Rick Pitino Watch” is on as the Hall of Fame coach is back on top of the college basketball world, leading Iona into the NCAA Tournament and finding his name once again linked to every top-tiered coaching job for next season.
Despite missing 55 contact days this season due to COVID protocols, Pitino’s Iona Gaels went on an exciting run to end the season, winning four games in five days to win the MAAC Tournament before falling to No. 2 seed Alabama 68-55 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Pitino has now taken five different schools to the NCAA Tournament (Iona, Louisville, Kentucky, Providence and Boston University).
Pitino is also the first coach to take three different schools to the NCAA Final Four (Louisville, Kentucky and Providence) and the first to win an NCAA Championship at two different schools - Kentucky (1996) and Louisville (2013), the latter of which has since been vacated.
After coaching professional basketball in Greece the past two years, Pitino was named head coach in March, 2020, at Iona, a private Catholic school with less than 4,000 students in New Rochelle, New York, that has never won an official NCAA Tournament game.
Despite Iona’s mid-major status, the 65-year old Pitino recently did an interview with one of his former players, telling Cameron Mills Radio that he has no interest in returning to “big-time basketball” regardless of who comes calling, including Kentucky.
“I would say no,” said Pitino of ever returning to Lexington. “You know what I think of Kentucky, I think it’s the best job in all of college basketball. If Coach Cal went to the pros today and they respectfully called me. I would say: ‘Boy, that’s the greatest honor in the world. But I’m very happy. I’m staying at Iona.’”
Pitino’s loyalty to the Gaels appears to be rock solid as he will forever be grateful to Iona President Dr. Seamus Carey and Athletic Director Matt Glovaski who made the 16-hour flight to Greece to offer Pitino a return to college basketball. Dr. Carey first met Pitino at a basketball camp in his teens before going on to play at Vassar College. Ironically, he later served as President at Transylvania University and remained one of Pitino’s biggest fans.
As for the rest of Big Blue Nation, Pitino’s relationship with Kentucky fans has been complicated. The New York native was once revered for leading the Wildcats back to national prominence with three NCAA Final Four appearances in his last five years, winning the 1996 championship and reaching the national title game in 1997.
However, Pitino left the state heartbroken when he bolted for the Boston Celtics and became a the ultimate villain at Louisville from 2001 to 2017.
Regardless of where you fall on the Pitino scale of love or hate, the New York native has nothing but love for Kentucky fans, who he says are the most passionate in the country.
“Well, I’m a very passionate person and to see the fans and everyone surrounding the program match my passion was something startling to me.” said Pitino of his initial reaction to Kentucky fans. “I didn’t think anybody could love the game as much as me.”
Despite being away from the college game since 2017, one thing that’s never changed for Pitino is his ability to motivate players, a skill that’s made him an elite coach since his first head coaching job at Boston University in 1978.
Pitino says the secret is to listen intently to your players and establish a motive as the foundation of understanding how to motivate players.
“I knew what motivated Richie Farmer. He wanted to be the King of eastern Kentucky,” said Pitino. “He wanted all of eastern Kentucky to be proud of him. I knew what motivated John Pelphrey. I knew what motivated (Deron) Feldhaus), Sean Woods, (Jamal) Mashburn. They all had different motives so you have to find out the motive to know how to motivate each individual and they’re not all the same so you really have to listen more.”
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Rick Pitino is one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. Just don’t expect to see him back at Rupp Arena any time soon.