Rick Pitino is college basketball royalty. A living legend. Which makes it hard to fathom that — while still actively coaching a strong program in the high-profile Big East conference, and only five years removed from his most recent Final Four appearance — Pitino could somehow be overshadowed in his own state.
And yet that is the case currently for Pitino, now in his 10th season at the University of Louisville. The future Hall of Famer owns a national championship (Kentucky, 1996) and the distinction of being the only coach to take three schools to the Final Four (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville), but with the UK Wildcats and polarizing head coach John Calipari drawing so much attention recently, Pitino and his UL Cardinals have been secondary news even in the state of Kentucky. Now in his 25th season as a D-1 head coach, and his Cardinals off to a surprising 8-0 start to earn a No. 20 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll, Pitino talked about his legacy, the Kentucky rivalry and the controversy over agents and college athletes:
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Dime: They say college coaching is more about recruiting than actually coaching. How do you see it?
Rick Pitino: I think players determine whether you win or lose, not coaches. As coaches, we have our styles, but the better players you have, the better that style works. In 1996 we ran a certain style, and we won championship because we had NBA players. I tried to use the same style a few years ago at Louisville, and it didn’t go as well. So the players make the style.
Dime: You’re teaching them something, though. What does it mean that so many of your former assistants and players have had success as head coaches?
RP: To me, a coach’s legacy are his players and his coaches. Not the championships he wins, but the players and coaches that are under him — that’s what you leave. Guys like Kevin Willard (Seton Hall), Ralph Willard (Louisville asst.), Herb Sendek (Arizona State), Billy Donovan (Florida), Tubby Smith (Minnesota), Mick Cronin (Cincinnati), Jim O’Brien (Indiana Pacers), Reggie Theus (Minnesota Timberwolves asst.), John Pelphrey (Arkansas), Travis Ford (Oklahoma State), all of those guys … that’s what makes me so proud.
Dime: Antoine Walker was working out at Louisville last summer trying to make his NBA comeback. How did he look?
RP: I think we made great strides with him, but then he leveled off in terms of his weight and getting into shape. I’m hoping somebody will give him a chance. He was ready basketball-wise, he just wasn’t in the shape he needed to be in. He needed a little more time. We worked him out for about a month, whereas we needed three months.
Dime: How is this year’s Louisville team looking?
RP: With this team, we lost our top four scorers from last year. We lost two Lottery picks from the year before that. It feels very similar to 1987, when I took over at Providence. Now we don’t need a gimmick like we used in ’87 with the three-point line; but we need a similar style where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you asked me who are going to be the starters, I couldn’t give you a legit answer. We have seven or eight guys who could play starting roles each night.
Dime: You’re going with a faster pace this year.
RP: We are. This is a group of really good athletes. Keep in mind, though, when you play fast, you have to be more disciplined and more talented. It’s very difficult to play fast because you’re under the influence of fatigue, and you have to make quick, spontaneous decisions. You don’t have time to call a play. I’ll never forget, at a Final Four press conference in ’87, somebody asked Billy Donovan, “What do you think of all this, being in the Final Four?” Billy said, “In our style of play, I don’t have time to think.”
Dime: Was there one particular reason why last year’s team didn’t perform up to the usual Louisville standard?
RP: I just think we were an average team last year. The thing that stuck out to me was that we didn’t have a team agenda, we have individual agendas. And I don’t mean that in a selfish way, but everybody was so consumed with the future that they forgot about the present. That was our biggest weakness. Samardo (Samuels) was consumed with making the pros, and Edgar (Sosa) and Jerry (Smith) were consumed with their futures because they were seniors. Seniors are great, but I think the best athletes to have are juniors, because they didn’t go pro early, and since their senior year isn’t right around the corner, they think about the present-tense. I love when I have 4-5 juniors.
Dime: How can you avoid those personal agendas?
RP: Honestly, in this world of technology, with Facebook and Twitter and everything, you can’t avoid it. There are too many outside influences. I have a no-Twitter rule during the season, but that’s about all I can do.
Dime: The issue of college players and agents became a hot topic during the offseason. What’s your take on the issue?
RP: The agent issue, it’s the same with basketball as it is with football — it’s a problem we can’t control as coaches. It’s shoe-related, it’s agent-related, it’s runner-related. It used to be you could fix those problems by turning in a school or a coach for doing something wrong, but coaches 90 percent of the time now aren’t involved. It’s the agents, the runners, and sometimes the families, and we don’t even know what’s going on.
Dime: Is it bigger now than it used to be?
RP: It’s more exposed than ever. I was reading Mickey Mantle’s book recently, and Mantle could never play in today’s world with today’s technology and media.
Dime: It seems the rivalry with Kentucky is back at a high level.
RP: The rivalry will always be intense. I think it’s become more intense in a good way because they are doing such an unbelievable job recruiting that it’s picked up our level of recruiting. I mean, they get the top six or seven (high school) players in the country each year. Everybody loves that star quality — the fans love star quality — so it’s changed the dynamics of the way we recruit a little bit. They’ve raised the bar, so to speak.