CRAWFORD | On Rick Pitino, his contract, and the next 11 years - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | On Rick Pitino, his contract, and the next 11 years

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AP photo. AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I only heard about Rick Pitino's contract extension with the University of Louisville while driving back from North Carolina on Tuesday, when ESPN radio host Bob Valvano asked me for a reaction to it — on his afternoon radio show.

Pitino has signed a contract through the 2026 season. Who knows if he'll coach that long? At his news conference, Pitino joked with athletic director Tom Jurich, “Do you really think I'll live that long?”

I don't know if anyone expects it, but it wouldn't surprise me if Pitino were still standing at the end of this deal. He might outlast a lot of us.

I was here when Rick Pitino arrived as coach at U of L, on March 22, 2001, when the TV news helicopters followed his ride downtown to the convention center, where more than 1,000 fans were waiting. I was around in the weeks leading up to that day, when he would send up little trial balloons through comments to the newspaper to gauge reaction.

In a stack of old papers I was sorting through while cleaning the other day, I found the front page from the day after Pitino was hired.

I was struck by a few things.

First, the day before taking the job, Pitino spent five hours on the phone with Ralph Willard. This season, Willard will be sitting beside Pitino on the bench.

Second, Pitino also talked to Michigan during the process, and nearly made the decision to coach there. In fact, he had more or less made up his mind and told several people he would probably take it.

Why didn't he? Because, Pitino said, “I couldn't call Tom Jurich and tell him.” Jurich sat beside him on Tuesday, and has stood beside him for a lot of years. He's probably the most prominent voice in his ear saying, “You need to keep going. You're hitting your stride.” And Michigan? Who would have thought, it turned out to be the school he beat for his second national title.

And the final thing that struck me was that Pitino talked that day at the convention center about Louisville being his last job.

Nobody believed him.

I remember an editor telling me, “He'll move on, but it's going to be a lot of fun while it lasts.”

He was half right. Pitino has been fun to cover. He's good copy. He's accessible. He has an opinion on everything.

It was a big deal when he went into Year 9 at Louisville. That marked longer than he'd ever coached anywhere.

It doesn't seem possible, but that day in the convention center was 14 years ago. He's had other schools express interest. Had overtures from TV networks. Had some NBA discussions. But he's still here.

What goes into that kind of continuity? What enabled Pitino to stay, stay, stay when his whole career to that point had been go, go, go.

He and Jurich get along. The university has made major strides. I remember Pitino talking about commercial development around the south end of campus long before I'd heard it much mentioned on the university side. Pitino likes his staff. His sports information director, Kenny Klein, has been elected to the COSIDA Hall of Fame, and last week was the recipient of a surprise party. He's just one of a number of senior staffers who have been there from the start with Pitino — and been through a lot with him.

“When you describe passion at any age, passion is derived from everything I just mentioned, from the people you work with to enjoying the last four years — I've enjoyed 14 years, but the last four have been something special, and not just because of the number of wins, but because of the enthusiasm in the entire athletic program,” Pitino said.

I remember a year or so ago, Pitino saying, “I'm in a good place.” He wasn't just talking about the city, or the university. He wasn't talking about the practice facility or the downtown arena. He was talking about where his head is, about how he feels when he gets to the basketball office every morning.

He felt so good about it most of the book he wrote (and on which I worked, full disclosure) dealt with it, from what he does when he wakes up to how he deals with players to how he weathered some of the major adversities in his life, whether they were forced upon him or self-created.

A funny thing happens to guys who keep themselves flexible, who are willing to stay fresh mentally and adapt to the world and profession around them, who weather storms in life and keep moving forward.

They come out on the other side more mellow, with more perspective, and with a different outlook. It's not that they want to win any less. It's not that they're any less driven. But they've already accomplished enough to leave a great legacy. No matter what happens, they smile and move on, eventually.

And it's usually at about that time when they aren't defining themselves by that next “W” that the “Ws” start to pile up.

For the last month, I listened to Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah, saying he just felt lucky to be back at the top of the game, he was thrilled to have won another Kentucky Derby, anything else that happened was gravy. I listened to him talk about enjoying the ride, about going out to dinner in New York City, about talking to his team about focus amid the media distractions of a Triple Crown.

He talked about mellowing, after a heart attack, after losing his parents. He talked about just looking at the next day, about being humble. He said he looked at old tapes of himself and said, “I can't believe I was that obnoxious.” I wonder if he's ready to write a book?

You might've noticed, he won that Triple Crown. It wasn't until he decided he didn't need it that he was able to grab it.

It takes some letting go of things, sometimes, to be able to accept what's coming down the road.

“A lot of people always use the term, ‘I'm so blessed,'” Pitino said. “Most believe is true. In my case, it is true.”

If he coaches long enough, Pitino has some milestone victory totals he could approach. He can spin off more coaches. Every year, he brings in assistants, and every year, it seems, someone breaks out into their own job somewhere.

While working on the book, he told me that when he does retire, not a night would pass when there wouldn't be a game on TV with a former player or assistant of his coaching somewhere. I attended the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame ceremony earlier this week, in which Bill Rafftery was inducted. He was an old coach, who we all now know as an old commentator. (Sean McDonough, who presented him, along with Ian Eagle, gigged him by telling the crowd of about 200 to bear with Raff, since leaving ESPN for Fox Sports 1 he's not used to speaking to so many people at once.)

Pitino has that kind of ability, to make a mark as a commentator at both the NBA and college levels.

But at 62, he's not ready to do that yet. And he's surrounded by people who know him well enough to know he's not ready to give up the competition, or the players, or the teaching.

“The one thing about him, 62 is just a number,” Jurich said. “People have told me that for many years. There is no doubt in my mind — and this is not lip service — he is a much better coach, a much better person, much better with his players than he's been in his career. I think he's just reaching his peak.”

I have to admit, I looked at that front page reporting Pitino's arrival at Louisville, and for the first time I honestly thought, “This guy might outlast me!”

With Pitino, nothing is a surprise.

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