LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino sits down to talk in his office, and in the middle of a table with a stack of papers is a small white book with fine black lettering, in Japanese. Toward the lower right corner of the cover is the book's title in English: "Success Is a Choice."
"I just got this," he said. "I had no idea."
Pitino wrote that book in 1997 with Bill Reynolds and it was published in 1998. Full disclosure -- Pitino has been writing a book this year, with me. In English.
You see a lot written about how Pitino has changed, mellowed, matured or otherwise evolved in those intervening years. Maybe this sums it up. The 1998 book is about overachieving. This one, in his words, is about overcoming.
Three years ago, in the midst of an extortion scandal, you wouldn't have found many people willing to buy stock in Pitino, even though he had just taken a team to the Big East championship and reached the Elite Eight as the No. 1 overall seed before being knocked off by Michigan State.
We see this script often. Public figures fall, and leave the scene. Occasionally one will return -- but not often, and rarely to the heights they reached before. So when you fast-forward to April of 2012 and see Pitino leading the "C-A-R-D-S" cheer from midcourt at the Louisiana Superdome before the Final Four, even with his coaching accomplishments and all he's done, it still has an improbable hue.
Fan or critic, it's tough not to acknowledge that he knows something about comebacks.
But even last season's late run seemed less probable than what happened on Tuesday, when Pitino signed a five-year contract extension that would, if he completed it, have him coaching until age 70.
As recently as last December, Pitino said he figured his current contract would be his last. He'd coach five more years, then get out and enjoy life. For two years, he has acknowledged that his coaching clock was winding down. Many of his friends had already stepped away from the sidelines. Pitino himself thought hard about it two years ago.
An agent told him he could get him a lucrative broadcasting contract. Networks like Pitino's possibilities as an analyst because of his experience in the NBA and college games. After a first-round exit in a loss to Morehead State, he earned positive reviews for appearances on ESPN and CBS. He could, if he wanted, walk away now and make a bid at being the next Al McGwire. And that career is waiting for him, whenever he chooses to put down the whistle and pick it up.
"It was the first time I really considered doing something other than this profession," Pitino said in an interview that will air next week in a half-hour WDRB Sports special program, "3 for the Road," a look at the programs and coaches from U of L, UK and IU in a season of unprecedented anticipation. "I had friends who were retired and were enjoying it. I had an agent and took a look at it. But my wife wound up telling me, 'You can't quit now. You'd miss it too much.' And I do think I need the game. I'm no good at golf."
Since then, Pitino says, "the switch flipped on. I've enjoyed every minute of it. Even when we lost to Morehead State with Preston Knowles going down in the first round, that was a great team to work with that just had a bad break. I felt like we could have made a deep run. But I still enjoyed that team and I've been determined to make the most of these days and enjoy it, because you never know when the game will stop."
Pitino has gotten back into horses in a small way. He's an owner of South Floyd, which will run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint on Friday. He's having fun with the names: South Floyd named after the street along which U of L's athletic facilities have boomed; Siva, named for his point guard; Gorgui, a large colt named for his starting center, and Russdiculous, named for, well, Russdiculous.
Pitino spent weeks at both Saratoga and Del Mar over the summer, took time away with his kids individually and together, and in general appeared to be living it up except for the occasional commitment that seemed to come out of nowhere: Montrezl Harrell leaving Virginia Tech to become the Cards' top incoming freshman. Mangok Mathiang dropping in out of a prep school in Florida by way of Africa and Australia.
At one point, I remarked to U of L sports information director Kenny Klein that the more time Pitino spent on vacation, the better his recruiting seemed to get.
On the wall of his office is a shadow box put together from the players of his Final Four team at Providence in 1987. Each player had signed a photo, and behind the frame are other mementos from that run, presented to Pitino when the group had a reunion in May. That team got to the Final Four on grit and three-point shooting. Twenty-five years later, as evidence of his ability to adapt, he came back to the Final Four with one of the worst three-point shooting teams ever to reach the national semifinals.
When meeting to discuss various chapters over the summer, Pitino would offer lengthy recitations of major life events, reviewing what worked and what didn't, what he did right and what he wished he'd done differently. In recounting difficult times, he discussed what got him through. I'm not big on coaches' books. But taken in its entirety, his career has yielded one example after another of overcoming adversity, whether from the outside or self-made. It seemed to me what he thinks about the subject is worth hearing, especially in these times.
But something interesting happened during these sessions. His talk invariably turned back to the coming season. He can't stop himself from looking forward.
And while he probably envisioned this project as writing the final chapter of his basketball career, he might yet have many yet to complete, especially if he coaches 10 more seasons.
On Tuesday, when he signed his new contract, he did not hold back in expressing what the game means to him.
"I don't know if I could live without basketball," he said. "Even broadcasting. I wouldn't have the highs and the lows, and I guess every coach lives for that. This game has been such a passion of mine. It has been my best friend, along with my other friends. To me, it's been a meaningful distraction."
Pitino says he gets up at around 6 or 6:15, does some stretching, hits the elliptical machine, punches in age "60," then exercises just enough to get the blood flowing, 10-12 minutes. He's off to work by 6:45, in the office by 7 and set for the morning staff meeting. Later on, he'll exercise at set times throughout the day.
"I drive seven minutes to work," he said. "It's early in the morning and I don't have a bad minute on this job. . . . I don't do a lot of office work on computers, outside of an occasional blog that I write. I'm in four individual instructions a day, I coach basketball in the afternoon, I make my recruiting calls, now I have to text recruits all the time, that's all I do. My life is spent in the gym between the lines. It's a damn good life."
He doesn't do Facebook. He doesn't do Twitter. What he is doing, lately, is studying John Wooden. Not many days go by that he isn't quoting Wooden to somebody.
He pulled one out Tuesday that he uses often: "Live every day as if you'll die tomorrow; learn every day as if you're going to live forever."
On his radio show later that night, Pitino speculated that the best way it could end for him was to be in the ninth or tenth year of his contract, to be playing a rival like Memphis or Kentucky, have a last-second three-pointer go down for the victory, "then have a heart attack right there on the sidelines. How great would it be to roll a 7 like that?"
In the meantime, one thing making Pitino's heart beat faster is his team, ranked No. 2 in the preseason, but more than that, filled mainly with the type of player that he wants to coach -- willing to work hard, to accept tough coaching, to defend and to battle through adversity. There were, after the Cards' run to the Final Four last season, a number of stories about how the run had rejuvenated him. U of L athletic director Tom Jurich has another idea.
"It wasn't so much the Final Four as it is these kids," Jurich said. "I've never seen anything like it. He was frustrated with the injuries last season, but he always believed he had a special group, no matter what anybody said. I think that's been the big thing with him, these kids."
Prior to arriving at Louisville, where he will begin his 12th season, Pitino was in perpetual motion. From Boston University to the New York Knicks to Providence, back to the Knicks, then UK, the Boston Celtics and finally Louisville, there were some who thought his tenure at U of L would be short, before something else caught his eye. These days, Pitino will tell you some of those moves worked out for the best, but they weren't all moves he would repeat.
"There's always been a reason that I made up my mind when I would leave a place -- none of them true as I look back on it," he said. "The reasons I would come up with were always made-up excuses for thinking I had another journey. At BU it was the chance to be an assistant coach for the team I grew up with, the New York Knicks. Then, at Providence, it was my dream to be the head coach of the team I grew up with. Then with Kentucky, to leave the Knicks, I just wanted to see the world, I had to come see Kentucky, that was my excuse. It wasn't the general manager who I didn't care for. So it was that excuse. There was always some reason that really wasn't true. But I know one thing, in my 12th year of being here, there's a reason after you finally gain some sensibility in your life, there's always a reason to stay."
Pitino has always been quick with an answer to a question, or a solution to a problem. These days, however, the illustration he uses is as likely to be from his own experience, good or bad, as from a soapbox.
He even upstaged his own contract news a bit on Tuesday when, just before signing off of his television show, he revealed that sophomore Chane Behanan's suspension for an undisclosed summer rules violation would be stretched from one exhibition game to two, and could stretch to the opener against Manhattan. Behanan, he said, hasn't fulfilled the obligations he needs to fulfill to play. A little while later, he confirmed that sophomore Kevin Ware also would sit for the first exhibition.
At times, you'll hear the assertion -- even among U of L fans -- you'll hear murmurs that Pitino is too hard on guys, that he's too tough for the player of today. Speaking at U of L's tipoff banquet, Pitino laid out where such discipline is coming from:
"Giving them discipline is telling you how much you love them," Pitino told the crowd, then turned to Behanan. "So Chane, I must love the hell out of you. And I do. Because the more discipline I give them, that tells them how much I love them, and I really, truly believe in that as a coach. If you don't give them discipline, then they're going to wind up on '30-for-30,' with a bad story. And that's something as coaches, we do not want to see happen. We want the best for them."
Somehow, it seems, the guy who was viewed as college coaching's boy wonder after bursting into the sport with Providence and the Knicks is transitioning into elder statesman -- especially if he makes a run to match Adolph Rupp to coach until he's 70, a stretch that would put 900 victories within his sights.
"The great thing about being 60 -- there's a lot of great things about being 60 -- one is you really don't care what people think," Pitino said. "You truly don't. A lot of coaches say that, but then they go reading the paper or watching TV and want to hear certain things. You really, sincerely don't care what anyone thinks. The second thing that's great about being 60 is that you realize your window is closing on your coaching career. Not that you're going to roll a seven, but that your career is coming to a close, and that you better enjoy every day as if it is your last. . . . During the season, I never want to go to bed because I'm afraid I'm going to miss a play on television. And if I miss a game I'm going to miss an out-of-bounds play or miss a press offense. And I watch NBA basketball through the night, because I'm always looking to learn something new."
A few nights ago, after the team's third intrasquad scrimmage, Pitino came into his postgame news conference and the first sound that came was from his young granddaughter Anna, who squealed from the corner. After the questions were ended, Pitino hopped down from the podium, scooped the toddler up and said, "Thanks for asking that question," and was out the door.
"My whole family is involved in this," he said. "My wife, my children, even my grandchildren, live for every Louisville game. It's an event. And it's the most important thing on their agenda. So we would all miss it so much. . . . Ten years is a long time for someone who is 60. But as long as I'm healthy and can do what I do with great passion, that's how long I want to go. I always said I was born a New Yorker and I want to die a Kentuckian."