Rick Pitino (with Jim Nantz) has delivered many valuable lessons on his journey to the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Rick Pitino takes his deserved spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with John Wooden, Dean Smith and the other wizards this weekend.
This journey to Springfield, Mass., started looking inevitable more than 25 years ago. This is why:
1. Pitino Embraced Change. You can't win big in college basketball today if you resist the three-point shot. That was not true in 1986-87, the season the college game added the risky weapon.
Jim Boeheim was not a fan. His Syracuse team attempted fewer than seven three-point shots per game the first season the three was available. Consider Mike Krzyzewski another skeptic. Duke averaged about 11 per game. Bob Knight won the national title that season at Indiana. Steve Alford took 202 three-pointers for the Hoosiers. The other IU players attempted 54.
The national average for three-point shot attempts per game was 9.2.
Pitino had a better way. An iconoclastic way. A winning way. A magical way. After winning 17 games in 1986, Providence won 25 in 1987, toppling superior Alabama and Georgetown teams in the NCAA Tournament as the Friars made an unlikely dance to the Final Four.
What was the magic? The three-point shot.
Providence shot 665 threes, double the total Louisville took for Denny Crum. The Friars led the nation in three-pointers, making more than eight per game. Providence played a different game.
College basketball changed. Today the average game features twice as many three-point attempts as it did in 1987. Pitino forced the change.
2. Pitino Did Not Show Fear. Pitino is getting ready to begin his 13th season at Louisville. Some didn't want him to last 13 seconds in his favorite home.
Shrieks surrounded the thought that Pitino could coach in peace at Louisville after working for eight seasons at Kentucky. So did four-letter words. One Pitino friend from UK cracked that it was typical for an Italian to fight on both sides of a war. That comment hurt Pitino. It wasn't only a Lexington thing. Some Louisville fans wanted no part of him, too. He was this close to going to Michigan.
In the end, Pitino followed his heart. Louisville was the right place for him and his family. Pitino is a basketball guy who understood he belonged in basketball country. Pitino showed that he could respect the rivalry and both schools by navigating the change, despite any uncomfortable backlash. He did not run. He has enriched the basketball culture in this area. Not many could do that.
3. The Duke Game. When you coach more than 900 college games, you're going to have moments you'd like to forget. Senior Day at Kentucky, 1997. Senior Day at Louisville, 2012. There have been others.
But Rick Pitino got it absolutely right after Kentucky's 104-103 overtime loss to Duke in the epic 1992 East Regional final. Pitino didn't need a college basketball historian to advise him that he and his unflappable players had just participated in one of the tournament's most remarkable moments.
Pitino pushed a takeaway that too often draws hollow lip-service. The pride drawn from effort and commitment can be more fulfilling than the satisfaction taken from victory. Duke played great that night in Philadelphia. Kentucky played just as great. Duke won. Kentucky won, too. Lesson delivered.
4. The Coaching Tree. John Wooden had Denny Crum. Dean Smith had Roy Williams. Bob Knight had Mike Krzyzewski. The great ones understand part of their contract with basketball is to develop talented people and encourage them to chase greatness, too.
Pitino has done that – as well as any modern coach has done it. His proteges have delivered.
Billy Donovan has won two national titles and made basketball matter at Florida. Tubby Smith gave Kentucky a national championship and the school's third consecutive Final Four. Scott Davenport won a Division II title at Bellarmine.
Bet on the list to grow. Nobody would be surprised if Frank Vogel won an NBA title in Indianapolis. Keep an eye on Travis Ford, Mick Cronin, Richard Pitino, Kevin Willard, Marvin Menzies, Reggie Theus, Kareem Richardson and Kevin Keatts. The Pitino Coaching Tree remains vibrant.
5. Cutting Down The Nets. I was not going to forget the winning. It would be foolish to argue that Pitino got to Springfield without the championships. He won at Kentucky in 1996 and then backed it up by becoming the first guy to win an NCAA title at two schools when Louisville delivered in Atlanta last April. That was history.
In fact, put me down on the list of guys who believe that Pitino will join Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun as three-time winners of the NCAA title. It might happen in 2014.
But there has always been more than March and April to Pitino. The buzz he brought to Boston University. At Providence, Pitino created dreams and expectations the Friars are still chasing.
The 14 games that Pitino won in his first season at depleted Kentucky were as significant as the 69 he won over his final two seasons at UK. It was his first example of the joys of competing. The magic was supposed to happen quicker than the 12 seasons it required at Louisville. This time Pitino showed another Hall of Fame quality. He persevered. Many didn't believe he'd last 12 seasons at Louisville. They were wrong.