- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville coach Rick Pitino is taking an indefinite leave of absence because of an undetermined medical condition that has left him in agony.

“I have been in excruciating pain the last three or four games,” Pitino said yesterday. “It’s getting worse day by day.”

Pitino, 51, said the pain was “urological related” and that he had been coaching with it for four to five months. He said doctors have ruled out prostate cancer, but they have yet to determine what is causing Pitino pain.

Pitino said he first noticed the pain during a golf outing last summer. He said doctors first treated it as a muscle tear, but when it didn’t heal, they began looking for another cause.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s gotten a little too painful to lead the type of coaching lifestyle I lead,” Pitino said. “We’ll take it from there.”

Louisville (15-1) is ranked fourth in this week’s AP Top 25 and has won 15 consecutive games. The Cardinals play host to Houston tomorrow night.

Pitino said he did not know how many games he would miss.

“It could be a couple of days, it could be a couple of weeks,” he said.

The Cardinals beat Tennessee 65-62 on Sunday night. When Pitino arrived home early yesterday morning, the discomfort was unbearable.

“I was doubled over in pain,” Pitino said.

Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich said Pitino told him about the pain during the past few weeks.

“I know he’s been struggling. Last night it probably came to a head,” Jurich said. “He wants to get this addressed.”

Assistant Kevin Willard, who last week pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol, will coach the team in Pitino’s absence. As a condition of his plea, Willard, the son of Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, must undergo alcohol counseling.

Pitino said he disciplined Willard internally after his arrest. He had no reservations about turning the team over to Willard, who also worked as Pitino’s assistant with the Boston Celtics.

“My confidence level in him is off the charts,” Pitino said.

Pitino met with his players before practice to discuss the situation. His announcement is the latest emotional blow the team has faced this season.

In December, Francisco Garcia’s brother, Hector Lopez, was shot and killed in the Bronx. A week later, Ellis Myles’ father died in California. Myles is redshirting this season with a knee injury.

“All of us have been through a lot and they know how to react positively,” Pitino said.

He joked that he would run practices through a speaker phone during his absence.

“They all realize that if I have to miss some time, I’ll have the tape and I’ll get back to them,” he quipped.

Sports information director Kenny Klein said Willard and the players were unavailable for comment.

Pitino was not the only key member of the team expected to miss tomorrow’s game. He said Garcia, the team’s leading scorer, was “doubtful” with an injured ankle and sophomore Taquan Dean, the team’s top 3-point shooter, will sit out with a groin injury.

“It’s up to our players, the rest of them, to rise to the occasion,” Pitino said.

Two years ago, Pitino spent a night in a hospital undergoing tests for an undisclosed illness. He said at the time tests revealed nothing seriously wrong, and he was quickly back on the sidelines.

Pitino, who won a national championship with Kentucky in 1996 and led Providence to the Final Four in 1987, is among the top 10 active college coaches in winning percentage.

He arrived in Louisville in March 2001 after 31/2 disappointing seasons in the NBA with the Celtics. He succeeded retired Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum at Louisville.

Pitino was optimistic he would return before the end of the season.

“We’re going to hope for the best in every situation,” he said. “Most men my age have these types of problems. We’ll get through this in a positive way. We’ll come back and hopefully have a good run in the tournament.”

Two other prominent coaches took leaves of absence during the regular season in recent years for medical reasons.

Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim missed three games in December 2001 after having surgery for an enlarged prostate. Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun was out 16 days last February after having prostate cancer surgery.

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