LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Rick Pitino brought his Iona basketball team to Atlantic City with a surplus of luggage before the MAAC Tournament last week. The Hall of Fame coach had a quick explanation: He was packing for the NCAA Tournament, too.
"I told them I was packing eight suits," Pitino said. "... Now we’ve got a lot of dirty laundry, and we’re going to Indianapolis."
It’s not the first time Pitino has employed that confidence-inspiring strategy (his Louisville team did the same thing when it stayed out west, traveling to Portland and then Phoenix without coming home on its way to the 2012 Final Four). When you’ve done the job for nearly 40 years, you know what works.
And this much continues to be evident — Pitino as a college basketball coach absolutely works.
He waited two years after leaving Louisville amid NCAA controversy to get back into college coaching. It took him less than one year — 17 games, the basketball equivalent of a New York minute, to be exact — to get back to the NCAA Tournament once Iona gave him the chance. The Gaels beat Fairfield 60-51 to become the fifth program Pitino has guided to the Big Dance, joining Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville.
On Sunday morning, Pitino, his team, and his baggage were already in Indianapolis awaiting their next assignment.
He will be one of the significant storylines of this tournament. As much as the American cycle of celebrity likes to tear someone down, it likes to see them come back. And this is a story of restoration. Pitino went back home to New York to restart his storied college coaching career, and now he's back where he belongs, in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s also a story of perseverance, and not just for Pitino. His Iona team endured two months’ worth of COVID pauses. It had a 51-day pause early in the season, then suspended the end of its regular season meaning the team went into conference tournament play completely cold.
"We’re big on conditioning," Pitino said. "... But every time we would get in shape, we’d get out of shape."
To get ready for the conference tournament, Pitino put his team through some grueling double-sessions, 90-minute practice, then send the players for weight training, then bring them back for 90 more minutes of practice.
But for Pitino, there’s no need to stay in NCAA Tournament shape. He’s ready to return to the platform that helped make him famous.
In a 20-minute media session after Saturday’s win, he was ready with a story about an hourlong discussion with Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin in a bar. Forget the fact that the story he related to his players about Mantle "Mickey who?" might’ve lost some of its punch, with reporters and the public, it’s classic Pitino.
"If there are any writers out there, stop saying I’m old," Pitino quipped. "Joe Biden may be a little up there. I’m young. Although I’m 68, I’m going on 48."
Pitino has come a long way since the days of his separation from Louisville. He was angry and desperate to defend his actions. He wrote a book defending them. Did many interviews. Then he said he got some advice from his son, Richard, the coach at Minnesota.
"My son gave me the greatest piece of advice," Pitino said. "He said, ‘Dad, nobody cares whether you’re innocent, you might as well stop saying it, because nobody cares. Just coach, stop tying do defend your honor, because nobody believes you.’"
So Pitino went to Greece, coached a team there, learned a few more things about the game he loved, and was all-too ready when the call came from Iona. He brought in 12 new players, and despite little time to get them ready in the preseason and all of the injuries and COVID-19 issues, here he is.
I haven’t spoken to Pitino for a couple of years, shortly after his book came out. He took a little poke at me in that book, saying I’d said or written some unflattering things about him. I’m not sure what he was referring to, and we didn’t discuss that in our long interview about his book. In this business, you say things or write them, and coaches have their opinions, too. It’s how things work.
But Pitino has softened his public stance on his time at Louisville. He settled his lawsuit against Louisville, and walked away without the money he was seeking. He chose to work on his future rather than fight over his past.
To say that interest in Pitino remains high in the Bluegrass State, and the city of Louisville, is no understatement. The coach was trending on Twitter in Louisville even before the final horn of Iona's win on Saturday.
"I’ve said it many times, Louisville is a great program," Pitino said. "Unfortunately some people in life did some things wrong and a lot of innocent people have suffered. Not only me, but a lot of innocent people that are behind the program and that’s disappointing. But I’m the leader of this ship, I said it over and over. I deserved to be fired because of somebody under me did the wrong things I deserve it."
At the same time, Pitino said, "Look at the record. The NCAA suspended me for five games. If they thought in the slightest that I did any of the things I was accused of, I would’ve been suspended for five years. So they investigated fully."
Now Pitino is back. With a small school in New York. Back where few doubted he would be. He has a team that doesn’t shoot well, so it works like crazy on defense. His players are still learning to play together.
They’ll probably have to face one of the top teams in the nation. Pitino quipped that given the NCAA’s treatment of him, "they’d make us an 18 seed if they could."
It doesn’t matter. Pitino is back in the Dance.
Disclaimer: Eric Crawford is the co-author of Pitino's book, The One-Day Contract.
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