Rick Pitino, who took Providence College's basketball team from 11-17 in 1985 to the NCAA Final Four last season, yesterday was named head coach of the NBA's New York Knicks, a team that struggled for 84 days to find a successor to Bob Hill.

At 34, Pitino, who was a Knicks assistant coach before taking the job with Providence, becomes the NBA's youngest coach. He takes over a team that has compiled a 71-175 record over the past three seasons -- the worst in the league.

"It was the most difficult decision of my life," said Pitino, a New York native. "I was 100 percent happy there {at Providence}. But I couldn't turn down the challenge of coaching the Knicks. If I didn't take the job, I would have always wondered about it."

On April 20, the Knicks fired both Hill and general manager Scotty Stirling. From then until last week, when Al Bianchi was hired to replace Stirling, the team had neither a head coach nor a general manager. The Knicks' scouting staff directed the club in the NBA draft.

The terms of Pitino's multiyear contract were not announced.

By joining the Knicks, Pitino leaves behind a five-year contract extension with Providence that was reportedly worth more than $300,000 a year. Pitino and the school reached that agreement May 1. At the time, Pitino and then-Milwaukee Bucks coach Don Nelson were thought to be the Knicks' top choices.

After Pitino, who led Providence to a 17-14 record two seasons ago and a 25-9 mark last season, re-signed with Providence and Nelson chose to become general manager of the Golden State Warriors, the Knicks pursued Kansas Coach Larry Brown, North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano and Jimmy Rodgers, an assistant coach and director of player personnel for the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics, citing Rodgers' player personnel duties, last week demanded a first-round draft pick as compensation if the Knicks signed Rodgers. The Knicks refused. Brown and Valvano both said over the weekend that they were not interested.

Meantime, the Knicks had approached Providence President John F. Cunningham about Pitino's availability. Although Pitino's contract, at Pitino's request, included no "escape" clauses, Cunningham chose not to stand in Pitino's way.

"I had a long talk with him Saturday," Cunningham told the Associated Press. "He did not ask me to get out of the contract. I extended it {the opportunity to leave} to him."

In a statement the school released yesterday, Cunningham said he regretted Pitino's departure, but wished him the best of luck.

At a news conference in New York, Pitino indicated he had some idea of how his move might be perceived in Providence.

"In many ways I am distraught about this," Pitino told the Journal-Bulletin. "My family doesn't want me to go, and I know there are some people who are going to think I am Judas, that I betrayed them. I wish the timing could have been different, but I feel that I am leaving the program in great, great shape."

Pitino said he did not accept the Knicks' offer until after he held a team meeting with the Friars. Pitino said he would not have taken the job if any of his players had objected. He said none did.

"I don't think we could have denied him something he has wanted for a long time," junior forward Darryl Wright told Newsday. "It's like one of the family succeeding."

Providence athletic department officials said Pitino's successor would be named within the next few weeks. Gordon Chiesa, who two years ago resigned as Manhattan College's head coach to become an assistant at Providence, was thought to be the leading candidate.