Rick Pitino revises a manuscript of "The One-Day Contract," due in stores on Tuesday. (Eric Crawford photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino offered to walk away. With a looming scandal that threatened to topple him and drag the University of Louisville through difficult days of negative news cycles in 2009, Pitino told his boss, athletic director Tom Jurich, "If it will make it easier on you for me to step down, I will."
Jurich responded, "As long as I am athletic director, that will never happen."
It wasn't the last time Jurich would step between his coach and the door. When Pitino went to meet with university officials and counsel, after he explained the details of the sordid story to come, some attorneys floated the idea of a leave of absence or some kind of time away from the game for the coach. But just as they began to debate it in earnest, Jurich spoke up and told them that if Pitino were off the job for one day, they'd have the added problem of finding a new athletic director.
And that was that. It seems like a long time ago. Rick Pitino's latest book, "The One-Day Contract," due in bookstores on Tuesday, doesn't begin with those events. But it is undeniably shaped by them, and by the rousing comeback the coach has fashioned, a comeback that took him to a second NCAA championship last season.
That exchange is one of many Pitino includes in the book. He talks about taking a lie detector test. He talks about difficult discussions with his family, and his experience on the witness stand. It could, frankly, have been a centerpiece of the book, and the experience does get its own chapter. But it faded into the background fairly quickly.
Championships change the story.
* * *
Pitino came to me about writing this book in the summer of 2011, after his team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament with a loss to Morehead State. But Pitino wasn't down. He was excited.
He called and asked me to meet him at a Starbucks in St. Matthews. I wasn't sure what he wanted, but his excitement over the idea was evident, and I told him I'd like to do it. I was, however, writing for the newspaper at the time, and such a project was out of the question as long as that was the case.
That's where things stood for the next season, which ended with a surprise run to the Final Four for the Cardinals. Pitino had in mind what he wanted to do. His book, he said, would deal with navigating life's most difficult times, with cleaning up the messes, with managing life after it had run off the tracks.
I never imagined working on a collaboration like this. It required not only a time commitment, but some rearranging of my life and work. To do the book, I had to leave the newspaper. I also had to set aside a certain degree of objectivity, which you never can completely regain after such a project.
I thought back to the day Pitino was hired. That day, David Hawpe, longtime University of Kentucky fan and current UK trustee who was then editorial page director for The Courier-Journal, caught me in the sports department.
"You have no idea how your life is about to change," Hawpe said. "You're going to have the time of your life."
I got a glimpse of the life-changing part later that afternoon. While Pitino arrived to a fleet of news helicopters following his motorcade downtown, I had to miss the closing on my house to cover the spectacle.
Adolph Rupp built Kentucky basketball. Denny Crum gave Louisville basketball its identity. Outside of those two men, no other coach has had as great an imprint on the college game in this state as Rick Pitino.
As a reporter for WHAS television, my dad, Byron Crawford, paid a visit to Adolph Rupp's home in Lexington near the end of his life. Mrs. Rupp was there, and they had graciously agreed to do an interview. They talked about various topics, my dad told me, then he got Rupp to recite a long passage of poetry that Rupp had been fond of, by Rudyard Kipling. It turned out to be one of the last interviews Rupp would give. My dad was always glad for that time he spent around Rupp. When the legendary coach died, Cawood Ledford, then sports director at WHAS, asked my dad to do the news story, which included that passage of poetry.
Now, Pitino is a long way from shuffling off this mortal coil. He may coach many more years. If Jurich has his way, he certainly will. But it occurred to me that this book afforded me an opportunity to spend time with one of the central figures in this game that means so much to the state -- and certainly, the central figure in Kentucky basketball in my lifetime.
The result was a book that, I believe, is the product of an evolution in Pitino, some of it painful, some of it the result of age, but all of it richer and more considered than what has come before.
* * *
I'm remembering a telephone conversation, one of many, during the editing process of "The One-Day Contract." He's at his home in Florida, I'm on the road somewhere. Pitino is going over some chapter, but a small voice keeps interrupting, and he stops to explain, "I'm talking to Eric," or, "That's nice sweetheart."
Finally, Pitino says, "Eric, I'm going to put my granddaughter Audrey on the phone, she wants to talk to you." I hear breathing on the other end. "Go ahead, say hi," he tells her. And all of a sudden, she's quiet. Then she scampers off.
Pitino is "Pop Pop" to his grandkids. His wife, Joanne, is "Jo Jo."
That's not a conversation you ever really envision having with a Hall of Fame basketball coach. But I am left with these glimpses. I don't know what Pitino was like in the prior chapters of his career. I've heard stories.
Ralph Willard told me that in the UK days, they videotaped games themselves with a patchwork of VCRs in the basketball office. One night there was a power outage and nothing taped. Pitino went ballistic. So Willard took to sleeping in the office so he could babysit the VCRs.
A Pitino assistant could be expected to be fired a half-dozen times during the course of a game.
"You better get your resume ready," he'd say, according to Willard. "You're out of here."
Pitino talked about those days in his book. In a chapter already available online, he said this: "I look back at my time at Kentucky and realize I didn't carry myself with the humility necessary to foster more lasting relationships."
These days, Pitino is all about relationships. The last chapter of this book talks about how many of his former players, managers and assistants have gone on to their own success. When he retires, he says, he'll be at no loss for things to do. Hardly a night will go by when there's not a game on television featuring a coach he helped to launch in the business. And that's no exaggeration.
"The thing that makes him most satisfied is all the relationships he's forged in his coaching career," Willard said. "There's nobody who has helped as many people as Rick Pitino."
And Pitino saves some of his deepest words of gratitude in the book for Willard.
"He was coaching at his alma mater, Holy Cross, and he loved coaching there," Pitino writes. "He had been a three-time conference coach of the year, a national coach of the year finalist, and had one of his best teams coming back. It was going to be a season for which he had been building. And when my crisis hit, he just walked away. He resigned and came to Louisville, because he felt he needed to be here beside me. It was the greatest gift of friendship I'd ever witnessed, and certainly ever received. Ralph went through every difficult moment with me."
* * *
The book, Pitino says in its introduction, "is unlike any other I have undertaken. I began writing it in the summer before our championship season, and was piecing it together in my mind long before that. While others have been focused on career, basketball and success, this book began with just one goal. Plain and simple, it began as an instrument to help people through the most difficult times of their lives. There's no question we live in trying days -- just look at a newspaper or watch the nightly news. But most of us don't have to do that. We can see the evidence in our own lives. We all know about tough times. In this book, I will talk to you about mine."
I saw a value in working on that kind of project. I also believe Pitino, regardless of anyone's opinion of him, has a set of life experiences that qualify him to speak to those subjects better than most.
That he was willing to write about humility -- but discuss his own lack of it -- or to talk about focus while giving examples of times when he has lost it himself, is significant. There will be critics who take him to task for addressing such issues. But within the book, he's also a critic of himself.
It was, I thought, a valuable concept. Then came a curve ball. The Cardinals won a national championship. Kevin Ware became the most popular player in the game after his gruesome injury against Duke. As we worked back through the book, however, to weave the championship story into its pages, both of us noticed that time and again the same themes were sounding.
"A remarkable thing happened while this book was being put together," Pitino says. "As I was writing about overcoming adversity, the power of focus, dealing with doubt, the importance of humility, prospering through pressure and the other ideas here, my team was putting each of those principles on display. The special young men I was coaching were putting into practice many of the precepts I will share in this book. They, in essence, wrote the conclusion. . . . They proved that these principles work."
* * *
In the end, Pitino is a coach. He could've hung all these experiences into the form of a memoir. But he wanted the book to be practical. So he hung them on his idea of a one-day contract. What would you do if you were up for renewal at the end of every day? How much more organized would you be? How much more purposefully would you live your life?
Within that framework are a few subjects he has grown passionate about. The misuse of technology. While in New York passing a few days before his Hall of Fame induction, Pitino and his wife went out to dinner and he noticed a family of five at a table across the way, all of them absorbed in their various screens, phones, iPads, etc.
"They never looked up," Pitino said. "On my way out, I said, 'It's nice to get out for a family dinner, isn't it?' They nodded and said yes, it's great. They didn't get my sarcasm."
"The ability to concentrate is slipping away," he writes, "and the phone in your hand -- the technology of our society -- is one of the biggest reasons. . . . I firmly believe that people who recognize this and develop a strategy for dealing with it will immediately give themselves an edge over most people in professional life in this country."
He writes about Luke Hancock and the power of the positive mindset. He includes an extended discussion with Gorgui Dieng in a chapter on heeding life's signs. He shares mail Kevin Ware received from all over the nation in a chapter on prospering from pressure. He explores one of his favorite themes in approaching sports as a meaningful distraction.
There are, in the book, many stories from Pitino's career, and many from the championship season. The expected characters all make appearances, and some who are quite unexpected. But for Pitino, putting all of those into a meaningful framework was the goal.
Pitino wrote some portions longhand. I have a stack of legal-pad sized paper with his longhand written drafts. There are also faxed pages when he would write sections and send them from the road. At other times, we would meet and discuss a topic for an hour or more, and I would go off to research and we would fashion the chapter from there. I don't know that this is Pitino's last book. His career seems to have more chapters to come. I do know that the topics he included are those he felt deeply about, and that the book's message is one born of experience and time.
"Adversity does not mean that you cannot experience victory -- far from it. I am proof of that," Pitino writes. ". . . If this book in some small way can ease the pain or help spark the climb by sharing the life lessons from thirty-five years of coaching, then (it) will have accomplished its goal."