Standing on a makeshift platform at midcourt and surrounded by the players who had just given him the sixth Final Four berth of his career, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino accepted the West Region title trophy Saturday and remarked that “outside of my six children, this is the happiest day of my life.”
Such a platitude has been voiced by countless coaches and players after big victories. But Pitino, 59, has undergone a noticeable and somewhat rapid change in the past four years, his players, assistants and family members say. He talks to his team about his coaching mortality and how he’s not sure how much longer he’ll manically pace the sideline. He communicates openly with a wide swath of the players, not just the team’s stars.
The man who will lead the Cardinals into a highly anticipated Final Four matchup against in-state rival Kentucky cares as much as ever about winning and bolstering his legacy. But he’s enjoying the process more these days, no matter how maddening it can get at times.
“My freshman year, [Pitino] would just kind of yell at me,” Louisville senior forward Kyle Kuric said. “I didn’t talk to him outside of basketball. I’d be like: ‘Why is he giving me such a hard time? He’s yelling at me all the time.’ It kind of discourages you, and you don’t have any confidence. But now if he gets on [freshman forward Chane Behanan], he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, okay, I understand it.’ And off the court, they kind of joke around. It’s a bond that’s new.”
Louisville assistant Richard Pitino, Rick’s son, coached on his father’s staff from 2007 to 2009 and then left to join the staff at Florida for two years. When Richard returned to Louisville this season, he noticed a difference in the way his father approached the players.
“I think with this team this year, he loves being around them so much that it’s almost like he doesn’t get on them like he did our first team, with Derrick Caracter, Earl Clark and those guys,” Richard Pitino said. “I mean, he really enjoys being around them.”
When Richard was young, his father spoke about the 1987 Providence team — the one Rick Pitino coached to his first Final Four berth — with such respect and admiration. He sees his father interact similarly with the current Louisville squad.
It’s a diverse bunch that includes a 6-foot-11 center from Senegal (Gorgui Dieng) who has lived in the United States for less than 21 / 2 years, a Samoan point guard (Peyton Siva), and a reserve guard (Russ Smith) who shares Pitino’s New York heritage and frequently drives his coach up a wall.
“The reason I’m so proud is because it’s tough to explain in this day and age the character of our ballclub,” Pitino said last Saturday. “Two years in a row we’re the highest grade-point average in the Big East. They’re not great students. They just fight incredibly hard. . . .
“That’s why I said people think that they remind me of the ’87 team because of overachievement. It had nothing to do with that. They remind me of the ’87 team because of their humility and the way they carry themselves.”
The ridiculous — or, as Pitino coined it, “Russ-diculous” — nature of some of his players is perhaps their most endearing quality. In a timeout during a home game this season, Pitino berated Smith for insufficient execution.
“He just kept yelling and yelling,” Smith said. “And I was like, ‘Coach, Coach, just give me a hug.’ He just stopped [talking]. He couldn’t deny it. So I went up to him and hugged him and then walked away. He just shook his head and sat down, and he was quiet the rest of the game.”
As the No. 4 seed out of the West Region, Louisville (30-9) is the lowest remaining seed in the NCAA tournament, and compared with Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State — the other Final Four entrants — the Cardinals’ path has not been smooth.
Louisville lost at Providence by 31 points on Jan. 10, the night when the ’87 Final Four team’s 25th anniversary was honored. That defeat occurred during a stretch in which the Cardinals lost five of seven games.
“We expected to get yelled at [after the Providence loss], but it didn’t happen that way, and that kind of shocked a lot of us,” Siva said. “We came back to practice, we tried to put it all behind us and we just tried to move forward.”
Siva said Pitino’s refusal to quit on this year’s team, despite several opportunities to do so, buoyed the players’ confidence. Louisville lost four of six games to close the regular season, but then proceeded to win four straight contests to claim the Big East tournament title.
The Cardinals now have won eight straight games and have arrived at the precipice of what would be the third national championship game appearance of Pitino’s 26-year career as a head coach, his first since he was in charge at Kentucky in 1997.
Richard Pitino said he does not believe his father will coach for the rest of his life. Kuric said Pitino has told the team he does not know how much longer he’ll coach, but that “he’s going to have people around that he likes.”
Smith is a good example of that. Despite all his antics, he remains one of Pitino’s favorite players. After Louisville defeated New Mexico, 59-56, on March 17 in the round of 32, Smith used two fingers to put bunny ears on his coach’s head while Pitino was doing a live interview on national television. Immediately afterward, Smith said, Pitino good-naturedly promised the eccentric guard he would get his revenge.
This is the side of Pitino he rarely revealed to a majority of his players four years ago, and it is the side of him that may have had as much to do with leading this team to the Final Four as any other.
As the Cardinals walked off the court following a practice session March 23, Pitino grinned as he put his arm around Smith’s shoulder and said: “I still remember the rabbit ears, son.”