CRAWFORD | On the eve of a new start, memories of Pitino linger with Louisville's players
While Rick Pitino is no longer on the sidelines, his players can still hear his voice in practice, and on the eve of their first exhibition game without him, some reflected the influence he's had on their lives.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In all of the fallout of events at the University of Louisville, there are many voices, and many opinions. This much is certain: You won't find many in the corner of former coach Rick Pitino. The base of support that Pitino had among the Louisville fan base evaporated almost instantly after details of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball was released.
You’ll find a few defenders of the Hall of Fame coach among his friends, his legal team and a couple in the national media. You won’t find many elsewhere. I found some on Sunday. At the KFC Yum! Center.
I asked Ryan McMahon about the day Pitino told the team goodbye, and he answered thoughtfully.
“It was really tough,” McMahon said. “For me, I can’t say enough about him. I was so under the radar (as a high school player). He was really the only coach that believed in me and gave me a shot. A lot of other coaches that pretty much follow him jumped on the bandwagon. But he was the one who believed in my talent and what I can do.”
McMahon was not recruited by any big-time programs despite impressive stats at Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota, Fla. He was Florida’s Class 3-A player of the year and the No. 3 vote-getter for the state’s Mr. Basketball, but only Pitino listened to the advice of Dick Vitale to take the time to come see him in person.
You can multiply McMahon’s story many times over Pitino’s long coaching career. Taking a kid that nobody else wanted. Sometimes, like in the case of Russ Smith, he took a guy he wasn’t even sure he wanted.
It’s the real head-scratcher about the things an FBI complaint alleges that he or his coaches have done, getting involved in a scheme to help funnel shoe-company money to big-time recruits.
Those aren’t the kids Pitino made his reputation on. He won a national championship at Louisville in 2013 with a team that didn’t have an NBA starter on the roster. There was some NBA talent, sure. But he took a transfer in Luke Hancock who wasn’t particularly fast or athletic and somehow helped mold him into the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
He nearly sent Russ Smith home after his freshman season. He wouldn’t have made it to the championship game if not for the heroics of Tim Henderson, who didn’t even come to Louisville as a scholarship player, or Stephen Van Treese, who left the program, then came back.
Pitino could drive fans crazy, heck he could drive players easy, with his demanding style. More than one has talked about practices being a little since stressful since he’s been gone. But that pressure – not stress, he’d say stress is a bad thing, but pressure is a good thing – is what drove guys to excel far beyond their expectations.
“Coach Pitno always treated me like the player he thought I could be,” Francisco Garcia once told me, “not the player I was. He wouldn’t accept the player I was. He wanted the one I could become.”
Anas Mahmoud made headlines when he said he didn’t look forward to practices under Pitino. The other part of that quote got less attention. He said, “The games were great, though.”
Dwayne Sutton said he was pretty down over Pitino being suspended and ultimately fired.
“He’s why I’m here,” said Sutton, a transfer from UNC-Asheville. “He had a record of taking guys like me and making us into something more. I practiced with him for a year. I was looking forward to playing for him.”
And McMahaon said he couldn’t help but look back.
“I came here to play for him,” McMahon said. “He told me he’d be here all 4-5 years, however long it took, he was going to be my coach. He was my father figure here. It’s tough to see a guy like that, who has done so much for you, leave. I sent him a long text the other day telling him how much I am thankful for him, for the opportunity he has given me, the direction he has allowed my life to go. The people I’ve met here, the connections I’ve made, the friends I’ve made. I met my girlfriend here. He is a life-changing man. And there are hundreds of guys who will tell you the same thing. That’s the big thing behind him. He has touched so many people’s lives in positive ways. To see him go through this, it sucks.”
Mahmoud said that he doesn’t believe Pitino did what he is accused of doing, of calling an adidas executive to get money for a recruit.
“Everything happened so quick," Mahmoud said. "It was very emotional, for me and my teammates. We didn't know what was happening, and we didn't know where the truth was. We didn't have a lot of information on what was going on around us. We just learned through Twitter and the news. . . . People keep asking, 'How did he not know?' Well, it's not like Coach P lives in Minardi. He only came to Minardi during the season the night before the game when we watch film. Other than that, I rarely saw him there. That was the first stuff that happened two years ago. How would he know? He doesn't know who comes in and who goes out in Minardi. But this other stuff, you ask yourself, do you assume he knows everything that goes on, and he already knows? Coach P loved to control everything that goes on around him. But it's not as easy to do that as you think, My dad doesn't know everything that goes on with me. Or my mom. It's hard to believe that he didn't know, but it's also hard to believe that he would do anything like that. At all. So you don't know what to believe."
Father Ed Bradley, a longtime friend of Pitino’s and head of the Daniel Pitino Shelter in Owensboro, once pulled me aside and said, “Did you know Rick feeds 40 people a day, every meal, every day of the year? Can you imagine?”
It’s interesting, when all is said and done, it might be those acts that bring Pitino satisfaction now that all this has happened, rather than anything on the basketball court or in the record book.
He mentioned his former players and assistant coaches and texts and notes he’s gotten in an interview with Jay Bilas.
I know, from listening to him on the radio last week, he can’t be doing well. And I know he doesn’t get much sympathy here in Louisville.
I’ve said, repeatedly, I’m willing to accept whatever the facts wind up being. I just can’t make sense of them as they stand right now.
At the very least, it’s worth noting, that though Pitino isn’t in the Louisville locker room, he is far from forgotten there, even now.
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