The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rick Pitino, still the ultimate self-promoter, plots his next move

Rick Pitino may have a return to the Big East in his sights after Iona’s NCAA Tournament opening-round loss to Connecticut. (John Minchillo/AP)
6 min

ALBANY, N.Y. — Rick Pitino didn’t take long to leave the court Friday evening after Connecticut blew out his Iona team in the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The 13th-seeded Gaels had actually led fourth-seeded Connecticut 39-37 at halftime before Huskies Coach Dan Hurley had a talk with big man Adama Sanogo about his six-point, three-rebound first-half performance. Sanogo came out to start the second half as if his life were at stake and had 22 more points — making 10 of 12 shots — and 10 more rebounds in the 14 minutes he needed to play as the Huskies pulled away for an 87-63 victory.

After the buzzer sounded, Pitino exchanged brief handshakes with Hurley and his staff and headed for the tunnel leading to the locker room. Metaphorically at least, Elvis had left the building. Everyone at MVP Arena was almost certain Pitino had just coached his last game at Iona and will appear next, perhaps as soon as Monday, as the new coach at St. John’s.

The New York media swarmed the building this weekend, not because of a sudden fascination with Iona, which now has a 1-16 record in NCAA tournament play. The only victory came in 1980 when Jim Valvano was the coach, and technically it doesn’t exist because the NCAA vacated it after learning center Jeff Ruland had signed with an agent before the season.

Every time Pitino walked down a hallway, he looked like the pied piper with the New Yorkers trailing in his wake.

Pitino was 64-22 in three seasons at Iona, which allowed him to renew his career after he was fired by Louisville in the midst of the FBI’s investigation into several college programs — including Louisville’s. Pitino is, without question, great at two things: coaching basketball and promoting Rick Pitino.

He has won 834 college games, although technically 123 of those, which took place at Louisville, don’t count because of an NCAA investigation that caused the Cardinals to be the first modern national champion to have a title vacated (in 2013). Wins and investigations have been a part of Pitino’s life since his first job as a Hawaii assistant in the 1970s. There, he and boss Bruce O’Neil were cited for 64 NCAA violations — eight attributed directly to Pitino. The report recommended that the school separate from both coaches, which it did.

Ten years later, when the subject came up, Pitino said: “I didn’t make any mistakes. I don’t care what anybody says.”

That’s Pitino: brilliant, arrogant and never wrong.

From the archives, Jenkins: Nothing to see in Louisville basketball program; just ask Rick Pitino

He went on at length Friday about being “exonerated” in the FBI’s investigation. He didn’t bring up the previous investigation that cost him the 123 victories and the national championship. Nor did he mention Louisville’s self-imposed penalties in 2017 after the scandal that involved women being paid to dance for and have sex with players and recruits in the men’s basketball dorm.

Pitino is never out of the spotlight. If he doesn’t find it, it finds him. I first saw him coach while he was at Boston University and realized how brilliant he was during a camp clinic in the summer of 1986. He worked for years at the famous Five-Star camp in Pennsylvania that was created by Hall of Famer Howard Garfinkel. After he became a star in coaching, Pitino came back to do clinics for Garfinkel every summer.

That year, soon after the NCAA had announced it was initiating a three-point shot, Pitino came to Pennsylvania for his annual clinic. During a drill in which he was showing campers how to run a secondary fast break, one of the counselors pulled up for an 18-foot jump shot.

Pitino’s whistle screeched through the gym. “Do you realize what you just did?” he asked the confused counselor, who shook his head.

“You just took what, as of now, is the worst shot in college basketball. You are one foot inside what will be the three-point line. You always pull up outside the line, not inside the line.”

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Did Pitino know what he was talking about? A year later, he coached Providence to the Final Four with a team built around the three-point shooting of Billy Donovan, Delray Brooks and Pop Lewis. Pitino embraced the three-point shot while most coaches were trying to pretend it didn’t exist. He was ahead of the curve on the three-point line, as well as most other things when it came to basketball.

But he fell off that curve often. He signed a five-year contract extension at Providence in May 1987 and left that summer to coach the New York Knicks. He rebuilt Kentucky from the ashes of probation to a national championship in 1996 and an overtime loss in the title game in 1997 and became the King of Kentucky.

Then, after talking about how much he was looking forward to the next season during his post-championship game news conference in Indianapolis, he became president/general manager/coach of the Boston Celtics.

He insisted on being given the president’s title even though it was held at the time by Red Auerbach. Celtics ownership explained to Pitino that Auerbach, who was 80, was retired and the title was strictly honorary, but Pitino wouldn’t back down. Auerbach was hurt but told the owners, “Just tell him if he ever wants help, he can call me.”

The Celtics didn’t win that spring’s draft lottery despite having the best odds, missing out on the chance to draft Tim Duncan. Pitino went 102-146 before resigning in 2001 amid complaints about a lack of talent (he was the GM) and trashing Boston sports fans who he said booed Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice.

He went on to rebuild — and wreck — his career at Louisville, all the while remaining a pariah at Kentucky (for leaving) and in Boston (for arriving).

On Friday, he talked about what he sees as the unfairness of his firing at Louisville, saying, “I had to wait five years for them to stall my career out to finally get exonerated.” He talked about his players’ exemplary academic record. He talked about Iona’s lack of frontcourt depth. Losing has always been the players’ fault, never his.

And when the first question was asked about whether he had just coached his last game at Iona, he said, with a straight face: “I really don’t have an answer to it, to be honest with you. I have no idea if it is or isn’t because I’ve focused everything on this game, trying to develop a plan to beat Connecticut.”

He will be developing plans to beat Connecticut again next season — as part of the Big East.

It is 17.7 miles, according to Google Maps, from Iona to St. John’s. You can bet Rick Pitino won’t need a GPS to find the place.