- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

Coach Charisma is back in the Big East.

Two decades after he introduced himself to the college basketball world as the manic sideline prince of Providence, Rick Pitino has returned to his roots as the face of Big East expansion.

Nearly 20 years removed from that Final Four run with the Friars, Pitino has added both some sapphire to his fingers and some salt to his pompadour after three Final Four trips and an NCAA title with Kentucky (1996), and wrestling with two relatively unsuccessful stints in the NBA. But his defining trait remains unchanged: He’s still the most magnetic man in the game.

“Back when I was at Providence [1985-87], the Big East was an Italian league,” says Pitino, flashing his trademark wry smile before delivering the punchline at the recent Big East media day. “It was Carnesecca, Carlesimo, [Connecticut’s] Dom Perno, Massimino, myself … Thompson.”

The huge gaggle of reporters clustered around the fifth-year Louisville coach bursts into laughter at the vintage Pitino icebreaker. Less than 20 feet away Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, the dean of Big East coaches and a man just three years removed from a national title, sits chatting with a lonely audience of two. Such is Pitino’s power over a room, any room, in which he chooses to hold court.

Those jostling for prime position around him know that more than just one-liners will follow from Pitino. Make no mistake, the 53-year-old Long Island native could be performing in comedy clubs rather than on the Cardinals’ sideline — his timing and delivery is that good. But spend five minutes with Pitino, and you’ll find there’s plenty of pith dispensed between chucklers.

“When you take the Louisville job, the last place you ever think you’re going to be is in the Big East,” says Pitino. “For me personally, it’s great, because suddenly the restaurants and hotels get a lot better.

“But it’s great for Louisville. In football, it’s been a godsend to be part of the BCS because we were going to Liberty Bowls and losing money every year. Academically, the administration is very excited about competing with Notre Dame and Georgetown and Villanova and so on. And from a basketball standpoint, this is as good as it gets.

“I think if you said, ‘Let’s get the top 10 programs tradition-wise in the history of basketball,’ I think you’d put Louisville in that top 10. But Louisville always lacked one thing that Carolina or Kentucky or Syracuse or UCLA or Indiana had, and that was a marquee league. They always played in the Missouri Valley or Conference USA or the Metro and tried to overcome it with an unbelievable nonconference schedule. So, now we’re going to take over the Syracuse way of scheduling: we’re never leaving home. We’re playing at Kentucky early on and at Miami, and I’m trying to get our AD to drop Kentucky.”

Pitino rarely misses an opportunity to needle his former employer or its fans, who still consider his return to the college game at their bitter instate rival the ultimate act of treachery. But a good deal of Kentucky’s anti-Pitino ire is rooted in envy and fear. Because the Wildcats are well aware of the fact that beneath the Armani suits and unmatched charm lies rare roundball genius.

If few coaches can compete with the style and personality which make Pitino a formidable recruiter, even fewer can compete with his hoops acumen. Pitino ranks ninth among active coaches in career winning percentage (.738, 449-159). But it is his outrageous record in postseason play which makes him stand out among even that elite company.

In his 14 college seasons since leaving Boston University for Providence, Pitino’s teams are an amazing 60-16 (.789) in conference, NCAA and NIT tournament play. That mark is tops in the nation, trumping even the postseason brilliance of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.759, 107-34). Last season, Pitino became the first coach in history to lead three schools to the Final Four when his Louisville squad capped a 33-5 campaign with a run to St. Louis before falling to Illinois 72-57.

Only two starters return from that squad, but one is an All-America candidate in senior combo guard Taquan Dean, who averaged 14.4 points and shot 44.7 percent from 3-point range while handling the point for Pitino. Thanks to Dean’s presence and a recruiting class heralded as one of the nation’s best, Louisville opens the season tomorrow against Tennessee-Martin ranked No. 7 and expected to push Connecticut and Villanova for the Big East title.

“I always think the backcourt is the key to college basketball. If you have a backcourt like Villanova, a backcourt like Syracuse with that experience, if you have a Taquan Dean, I think you can compete,” says Pitino. “Someone asked me if Taquan Dean was the best shooter in college basketball. And I said that I’m sure Duke would argue that with J.J. Redick or another team with somebody else. But I will say this, he’s the best basketball player who is a great shooter. Because he can turn around and defend your best player. He can break you down off the dribble. He’s a terrific athlete. So, I don’t think anybody who shoots the basketball that well can do as many things as he can. Taquan’s pretty special.”

And so is the coach who headlines this season’s expansion-crazed interconference chaos.

“I think it’s going to be so much more enjoyable than it’s been for me, because everyone likes to compete against the best,” says Pitino. “In our conference last year, you had to play against Cincinnati, UAB, Memphis, Marquette and DePaul, but then there were four or five games where you had much more talent than the people you played against. That won’t be the case here. Rutgers might have been in last place last year, but if you asked all the coaches where you would want to go to play, Rutgers would not be on their list.

“It’s such a tough conference, so competitive. We had quality at the top way back when, but not this kind of depth. The kids are ready for the Big East, and I hope I am. Hopefully, I’m a little wiser, because I’m older. With age comes experience. With age comes humility. With age comes knowledge … I mean I know where to eat.”

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