It is safe to say that Rick Pitino is a basketball lifer. Pitino was born in New York City which has been called the Mecca of basketball by many observers over the years. Pitino then played college basketball as a guard for the Massachusetts Minutemen from 1971-1974. And upon graduating from Massachusetts, Pitino immediately got into the coaching ranks as an assistant coach with the Hawaii Rainbows. Pitino quickly worked his way up as an assistant coach; first at Hawaii, and then under Jim Boeheim with the Syracuse Orange. And by 1978, Pitino got his first head coaching gig when he took over the Boston Terriers. In five years at Boston, Pitino went 91-51 with a pair of postseason appearances which included a trip the NCAA Tournament in 1983. Following Boston’s tourney appearance in 1983, Pitino left to become an assistant coach in the NBA for the New York Knicks. But in 1985, he got another chance to run his own program back in college when he became the men’s head basketball coach of the Providence Friars where in just two years, he led them to their first Final Four appearance in 14 years. Pitino continued to shuffle around as following Providence’s trip to the Final Four, he abruptly left to become the head coach of the Knicks. By Pitino’s second season in New York, he helped the Knicks win their first Atlantic Division Title in 18 years. However Pitino could not stay still as the lure of becoming the men’s head basketball coach of the Kentucky Wildcats was too much to pass up on. At Kentucky, Pitino restored the program to national prominence which included three Final Four appearances, and a national title. But it wouldn’t be Pitino if he could not stay still and in 1997, he returned to the NBA as the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Pitino’s second run in the NBA was not as successful as his first one as in three-plus seasons with the Celtics, his record was 102-146 without a trip to the playoffs.
Pitino abruptly resigned during the 2000-2001 NBA season, but it didn’t take him that long to return to the college basketball scene as in March 2001, he was named as the head basketball coach of the Louisville Cardinals. At Louisville, Pitino was once again able to work his magic as in just two years, he had the Cardinals back in the NCAA Tournament, and by his fourth year, the Cards were back in the Final Four for the first time in 19 years.
Under Pitino, Louisville once again became a national power. Louisville joined the Big East Conference in 2005 which helped their program immensely as Pitino was able to recruit New York City due to his coaching ties in the area. From 2007-2015, the Cardinals would make nine consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, while in 2009, they along with the Connecticut Huskies and Pittsburgh Panthers helped the Big East become the first conference to have three teams be No.1 seeds in the NCAA Tourney.
However Pitino’s finest hour at Louisville came in 2013 when he led the Cardinals to their first national title since 1986, and in the process he became the first and only head coach in men’s basketball to win it all at two different schools.
But since Louisville won it all, things have not been smooth for Pitino. Louisville imposed a postseason ban on its men’s basketball team for the 2015-2016 as the result of an escort scandal that involved recruits from 2010-2014. This scandal came on the heels of an extortion plot against Pitino after he had engaged in a extramarital affair in 2009. However even with all of this, the powers that be at Louisville decided to stand by Pitino until this past September when the stench of another scandal became too much for them to bear.
The FBI came knocking at the door of Louisville as they were under investigation for a “pay for play” program where recruits were lured play at Louisville for cash, while some assistant coaches were getting kick backs from sneaker moguls such as Adidas which currently sponsors Louisville. And although that Pitino cannot be everywhere all of the time, this was too much for the school to deal with and he was shown the door.
Since then Pitino has denied any wrongdoing, while he has done his part to remain reclusive. However the final blow was delivered to Pitino this week when the NCAA stripped Louisville of its national title in 2013, along with all of their victories from 2011-2015. And as Louisville is now in the process cleaning up its image, Pitino may never be able wash this one way; just like the tattoo that he got on his back following the Cards national championship in 2013.
It’s very rare that a coach gets to walk away on his terms, while being able to emerge scandal free. And as Pitino has walked the razor’s edge before, it has finally gotten the best of him. Pitino has always thrown caution to the wind which is what made him successful, but it has also led to his downfall. Pitino should have been able to coast to retirement at Louisville, but instead the posse ran him out of town. And instead of being remembered as a bright basketball mind that sent numerous players to the NBA which included Antoine Walker and Jamal Mashburn, while developing a good basketball mind in current Oklahoma City Thunder, he’ll be remembered as a shady basketball power, that not only was beloved within the Commonwealth State of Kentucky, but now hated by the folks in Louisville and Lexington alike. There is a group of potential investors who have been attempting to bring an NBA basketball franchise to Louisville; however they were rebuffed after Pitino refused to share the KFC Yum Center with a professional team which only adds to the disdain for him in Kentucky.
So now as the final nail was placed in Pitino’s coffin as the NCAA denied Louisville’s appeal this week, he will go down in history as a man that restored a pair of basketball powerhouses within the State of Kentucky, but also shamed one in the process.
Sources: Basketball-reference.com, Sports-reference.com