LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It’s 30 seconds before tip-off.
Coaches, players and cheerleaders make their entrances. Only one man has yet to show.
“The savior.” A crowd of 19,000 has saved its loudest cheers for him.
Twenty seconds before game time, Rick Pitino emerges and makes his way to the Louisville bench. The fans bellow their approval. He smiles and high-fives a ballboy.
It already feels like home.
Pitino, in his trademark black suit, is starting over. But this time, the color of the accent is red.
Like on this night, when Pitino leads Louisville into battle wearing a red tie. Not green, as in the color of the Boston Celtics, the NBA team he tried to rebuild, but couldn’t. And not blue, as in the color of Kentucky, the team he took from NCAA sanctions to a national title in seven years.
Red. Cardinal red.
Pitino spent 3 1/2 disappointing seasons with the Celtics before resigning last January. When Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum retired after 30 years with the Cardinals – due in part to a 12-19 record last season – Louisville’s director of athletics, Tom Jurich, said he wanted one man to try to restore the program.
After 29 NCAA tournament appearances, seven Final Fours and two national titles (in 1980 and ’86), the Louisville program had become lackluster. “This program had dropped so bad,” Jurich said. “We wanted to shoot for the moon and get the best coach in the country. I had one name – Pitino.”
Although he entertained offers from Nevada-Las Vegas and Michigan, Pitino decided to return to the state he had left in 1997, when he became president and head coach of the Celtics. Louisville gave him a six-year, $12.25 million deal, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the college game.
But he found controversy on the welcome mat.
Larry Ivy, athletic director at Kentucky, chided him in a public statement, and many Kentucky fans now sport T-shirts with slogans like “Traitor Rick!”
Cardinals fans have their own designs that say: “Got Pitino? We do!”
The emotions have recharged the traditional Louisville/Kentucky rivalry, contributing to a sellout of today’s regionally televised game. Louisville (9-1) will be at No. 7 Kentucky (7-2), coached by Tubby Smith.
“Whether [fans] have signs or boo, it absolutely does not matter,” Pitino said this week. “My focus will not be on myself. My focus will be on preparing this basketball team for a great team in a very difficult environment. This is a great teaching tool for our young basketball team.”
While coach at Kentucky, Pitino lost to Crum only twice in eight matchups, and the Wildcats lead the series, 22-10.
“I’m a fan of this Cardinal team,” said Louisville businessman Ron Carmicle, one of Pitino’s close friends for the past 12 years. “I’ve been a supporter of the University of Louisville since Rick coached at Kentucky, but I also consider myself a Kentucky fan. I like to see both schools do well. But Rick just coaches a fun style of basketball.”
Tried and true
His first Cardinal squad exhibits the traits of a Pitino-led team. Quick guards advance the ball in an up-tempo style toward agile, slender big men in the paint. After a series of fakes and rotation, the big man feeds a small forward or either of the guards for an open attempt at a three-point shot. If a player should pass up the open perimeter shot, that player will soon be sitting on the bench.
After a basket, the Cardinals display their full-court pressure – a sea of waving arms, moving feet and loud sneaker-squeaks – hoping to force turnovers and create easy transition baskets.
Then the madness begins anew.
So far, the plan has worked. Louisville has lost only to Oregon and pulled off upsets of Ohio State and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, everyone has his own Pitino story.
For junior guard Reece Gaines, the player who shoulders most of the leadership and scoring duties, it’s been a tough love story.
“Coach wants to make me tough,” Gaines said. “So there will be times in practice where he won’t give me a call. Every call will go against me, no matter what, so I’ll know what it’s like to play when the odds are against me. If there’s a block, he’ll say I charged.
“It makes me mad, but I think he knows I respect him for teaching me.”
For assistant coach Scotty Davenport, one of only two holdovers, it’s been a matter of shaping up or shipping out.
“When coach Pitino came in, he told me I had to lose weight to be on his coaching staff or he would fire me,” Davenport said. “That was April 28. I’ve since lost 66 pounds.”
For sophomore forward Luke Whitehead, who is still recovering from a nasty fall against Coppin State on Dec. 12, it’s been the conditioning.
“We had this new cardiovascular workout room installed right next to our practice court,” Whitehead said. “So now, whenever we don’t hustle in practice, coach can just tell us to leave, and we know that means to go run on the treadmill . … Then, when he thinks we’re done, he’ll get someone to come get us and we’ll practice some more.”
Pitino tends to avoid talking about anything other than what he calls “the precious present.”
“We have so much to work on, so much to keep improving on,” Pitino said after the Coppin State victory,”that to dwell on the past or look ahead is pointless.”
Most of all, Pitino doesn’t want to talk about a painful personal matter, the loss of his brother-in-law and best friend. Billy Minardi, 46, died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
For Pitino, it’s time to mold young players, to push them to achieve more than anyone thought they could.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a first-year team work as hard as this one,” Pitino said. “But we’ve got a long way to go because of how young we are.”
But the future looks bright in the view of ESPN basketball guru Dick Vitale, who ranked Louisville’s recruiting class for next season No. 10.
“Coach Pitino is working miracles,” said the athletic director, Jurich.
But “the savior” disagrees.
“I’m just having fun,” Pitino said.