- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Louisville coach Rick Pitino is where he belongs. In college basketball. In the Bluegrass state. In the Final Four.

In the sixth stop of his nomadic career, Pitino has found peace in a sleepy southern city where he can raise his five children without worry. Pitino’s office overlooks Churchill Downs, where one of his beloved horses competed in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.

The big money and prestige of the NBA no longer matter after failed attempts in New York and Boston. The hair’s still out of GQ, and the suits aren’t off the rack, but there’s a big difference in the 52-year-old as he prepares for his fifth Final Four with a record third team.

His main priority is returning Louisville to its status as a perennial power. And the chance for his children, who were too young to remember Kentucky’s 1996 championship or Providence’s trip to the 1987 Final Four, to see the Cardinals meet Illinois in Saturday’s national semifinal means more to him than any of his personal achievements.

“I really think so little of myself in this day and age,” he said. “I do think it would be great for the [players], for Louisville. I’d love to see the smiles on my family, of my nieces and nephews certainly, to go to a Final Four. But in terms of taking three programs, I really don’t think too much about that.”

What happened to one of the slickest cats in coaching? The guy who signed a $50 million deal, coached the Boston Celtics into the ground and then got most of the contract in severance? When did Pitino turn into Yoda?

A series of personal setbacks made the Celtics debacle appear minor. Two brothers-in-law died in recent years — one hit by a taxi, another on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center on September 11. His mother passed away last year, and Pitino suffered his own health scare last season.

“[September 11] will change me forever. … I’ll never be the same person ever again,” he said. “Age and [September 11] has not mellowed me but just made me care about just everybody other than myself.”

Nevertheless, Pitino admits he still might be coaching in Boston had he won the draft lottery in 1997. Boston wound up with the third pick — and took Chauncey Billups. The prize that year, Tim Duncan, became a two-time MVP in San Antonio, while Billups lasted less than one season in Boston.

“It’s all about talent, and whether it’s Pat Riley with the Miami Heat when they lost a talent or whether it’s whoever, it’s about talent. And if things don’t go your way, the average life span of an NBA coach is a year and a half,” Pitino said. “So when I left that situation I said, ‘OK, what did you learn from it? What did you do wrong, and how could you be better?’ And I learned a lot from that experience, and so I take it now and incorporate it into college basketball, which is really where I belong.”

The “Ph.D. of poor, hungry and driven” Pitino earned in Boston helped him return Louisville to its glory days. The Cardinals (33-4), led by Francisco Garcia (16.0 points) and Larry O’Bannon (15.2), have five players averaging in double figures.

But the defense Pitino brought from the NBA has made the difference. The Cardinals overcame a 20-point deficit against West Virginia in the Albuquerque Regional final Saturday after Pitino abandoned his original game plan for the first time in his career. Louisville used a different zone in the second half en route to the overtime victory.

“I learned probably more basketball in two years [in Boston] than I have in 20 years, and it was all about preparing to stop the greatest players on earth each night,” he said.

After an NIT berth in 2002 and two early-round exits in the NCAA tournament, Louisville has a shot at its first national championship since 1986. And it may be just the beginning of a new era for the program.

“Louisville lost its brand because they weren’t in a marquee conference and they hadn’t been good for like five or seven years,” Pitino said. “The recruits didn’t know about Louisville and didn’t know their brand anymore.”

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