LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- These have been the best of times for Rick Pitino. Three weeks after his University of Louisville basketball team won a national championship, the table in his office was still piled high with memorabilia, and more on the way. Every day, he thinks of new people to send things to, and the pile is raided again.
On a wall by the doorway is a box frame containing memorabilia from his 1987 Providence College team that made the Final Four. The group had its twenty-fifth anniversary get-together last summer, and Pitino has told players from his 2012-13 Louisville team that they can expect similar reunions, that they will be bound together and to the city and university for life by the accomplishments and experiences they've shared.
It's the best of times, but of course, you don't have to look too far back to remember when it was the worst. In the midst of a scandal and an embarrassing and excruciating experience on the witness stand in an extortion trial, the odds looked pretty well stacked against him. We see it all the time. People in public life are exposed and brought down, pounded in the media and in the court of public opinion. Often, they recede from public view. Rarely do they return to their original heights.
Rick Pitino returned. Whatever your opinion of the 60-year-old coach who will go into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September of 2013, you have to acknowledge that he knows something about comebacks. It's probably appropriate that his second NCAA championship team staged two 12-point comebacks to win in the national semifinals and finals.
Before his 2012-13 team began practice, right after small group workouts began, he called it a "push-button" team. It was not a team that would need a great deal of tutoring on how he expected to play. He knew going in, if he pressed the right buttons, he could have something special.
Especially in the second half of the season, every move he made seemed to be the right one.
Long ago, he had made an important decision to move Russ Smith to shooting guard, even though he's undersized for that position. It worked. He moved Kevin Ware to point guard. It worked. Every time he called on someone, it seemed to work. In the tournament, he outmaneuvered Colorado State's Larry Eustachy and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Duke players weren't sure what defense U of L was running. In fact, it was one defense when Seth Curry got the ball in his hands, another when he didn't have it. Eustachy marveled that U of L was able to take away seemingly every individual strength his team had. It went for steals, but not until players had the ball in their off-hands. The combination of scouting and execution was remarkable.
"They really played intelligent basketball down the stretch," Pitino said. "I look back at it, little things, Peyton Siva driving and flipping back to Luke Hancock for the open three against Michigan. They just made so many great decisions. . . . Look, everybody talks about me having the best week and the championship and the Hall of Fame. I know why I've had all these great things. I've had good players. And this season we had talented guys who played with great intelligence."
Three seasons ago, Pitino had a fun year with the Cards, only to see them stumble to Morehead State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Looking back, he sees no shame in losing to a team with Kenneth Faried, particularly when Louisville's best player, Preston Knowles, was injured in the game.
After bowing out, Pitino went on to do some television. He bantered with Charles Barkley, and spent time on the sets for ESPN and CBS. An agent told him he could get him a lucrative broadcasting contract. Networks are intrigued by Pitino's possibilities as an analyst because of his experience in the NBA and college games. He could, if he wanted, walk away now and make a bid at being the next Al McGuire. 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. "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 won just about every way you can win. He did it with a Providence team that relied on the three, and he went to the Final Four in 2012 with one of the worst three-point shooting teams ever to make it there. At times during the 2013 title run, his team looked dominant. But examine its parts and you'll see it was far more than talent. There wasn't a lottery pick on the Cards' roster, but Pitino, on the championship podium, looked like a guy who had hit the lottery.
National title. Kentucky Derby horse. Hall of Fame announcement and his son, Richard, became the youngest coach in the Big Ten Conference. And all of it coming in the same week.
It had many people calling it Pitino's best moment ever. But the coach looked back to a moment before. He said watching his players react when Kevin Ware went down with an injury, watching them pick each other up, watching Ware consider teammates before himself in urging them to win the game, all of it was a painful moment, yes, but also a proud and poignant one.
"As a coach you hope they can handle adversity when it comes, whether it's basketball or life," said Pitino, whose next book addresses that very subject. "To see them handle it with love and strength and resilience, that was special."
If there was a trademark Pitino stamp on this season, that was it, taking misfortune and battling through, coming out champions on the other side.