College / Dec 14, 2010 / 1:15 pm

Rick Pitino: Kentucky has “raised the bar” for unbeaten Louisville

(photo. Dave Klotz, Louisville Athletics)

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.

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  • quest???

    Rick Pitino is the new head coach for the Puerto Rican National Basketball team!

  • Shawn

    Pitino knows Louisville fans are steaming mad that UK is better and now recruits off the charts so Pitino hired a Nike agent to recruit North Carolina. Louisville has always played second fiddle in that state from where I sit in Ohio. Go Buckeyes! I still cant believe Pitino is doing so well after having a affair in a restaurant and having a abortion.

  • Vinyl Richie

    Then you continue to sit in Ohio. As a Louisville fan and resident of the state, I don’t have a problem with what the article states. If you need 5 first round draft picks to reach the Elite 8, so be it. I know of coaches that don’t need that type of talent to be competitive. And they don’t need to use the WWWes’ of the world, either. Fuller’s an actual Assistant Coach, that has coached prior to his job at Nike. I don’t need to justify his hiring, look at his resume. It certainly helps that he worked in Grassroots basketball. And it’s started to pay off with the recent verbal commitment from Rodney Purvis. UofL and uk match up on New Year’s Eve in the best arena in the country, college or pros and we’ll see where we stand against them. I’m not concerned with any thing Crook Cal can bring, even the Professional they look to get eligible. Rick will go to the Hall of Fame, the question remains if Crook Cal will. And if he does, will it get vacated, too?

  • http://www.roidrage.com Chicagorilla

    I like Pitino, but i dont agree 100% with his statement that superior talented players determine the wins and loses. You really only need talented players who buy into the coaches system. Look at UNC in 93. Not one of those guys were legit NBA players past Lynch and he was a role player at best. Yet they beat Michigans fab 5 with two future all stars and Jalen Rose who was also nearly an all star. I think Pintino and coaches like him fail because they arent great coaches, just good ones who recruit well. Calapiri is the worst of them all as he tricks kids into coming to his school but they LEARN nothing the entire time they are there.

  • Mangavideo

    Calipari “Tricks” Recruits? “they LEARN nothing”?

    Tricked into what? Going first Round in the NBA? Going #1 in the Draft. Being NBA Rookie of the Year? Your statement makes no sense.

    “Crook Cal”?
    rom a UL fan? Really? Do I really need to comment on Pitino’s integrity? Really? And Pitino’s crime against his family is factual. At least Calipari, by the NCAA’s & Camby’s own admission, never knew their was an agent following one of his players around. As for Rose, the SAT was taken before he signed LOI with Memphis as did the NCAA Clearinghouse clearing him before signing


    Teague chose Calipari, why? What guard does Pitino have to illustrate what a player can be at the next level? Pitino’s guards become Coaches at 30, Calipari’s guards become Millionaires at 19. DO THE MATH!

  • Vinyl Richie

    We are discussing COLLEGE basketball. Not the NBA, here, keep up, son. Everyone outside of Memphis and Lexington know how he gets down. Sure, he gets kids to the NBA, but really, Wall, Rose, Evans were all First round picks regardless of where they went to school. Check the mock drafts. Bledsoe and Orton weren’t sure fire first round locks, and it shows that the NBA drafts on potential.
    Now, as far as the “crime against his family”, I’m not in his family, but as a fan I can say that I was disappointed and embarrassed. Yet whenever Cal is brought up, all uk fans do is defend and defend his name. Once he leaves and the probation and vacation comes, are you gonna defend him, then?
    I wouldn’t necessarily say that Pitino has failed. I do think that better players make better teams. However I do agree with the sentiment that better coaches make teams better. Look at uk last year. Befuddled by a 1-3-1 zone and a one armed point guard. 5 first round picks. Enough said.