By Zach McCrite
I already miss Rick Pitino. Truly, I do.
This is to say nothing negative towards David Padgett, the interim head coach of the University of Louisville basketball team. He’s a fine man in a precarious spot.
I’m also not implying that Rick Pitino should still be the coach of the Cardinals.
No matter how much he knew or didn’t know about multiple (let that sink in: multiple), program- and university-staining scandals, the way he accepted basically zero responsibility for them other than “making two bad hires,” as he once admitted, was icky enough, if you ask me.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not missing him.
Here we are in December – a month where Louisville will take on both Indiana and Kentucky –and we’re not going to get any of the fun stuff to which we have become accustomed.
No longer are we going to get the numerous sideline animations that we were so used to seeing. The yelling at the players from the other side of the court. The seemingly video-game like pointing, pulling and raising of the arms to try to get the kids to do exactly as he pictures in his mind.
I will miss the times he got down on one knee when things seemed relatively comfortable during the game. The classic hands-behind-the-back move when he needed to say something that wasn’t necessarily angelic, let’s say.
Some of his most memorable games as a coach are etched in my memory forever, too.
I will miss how he guided the most unbelievable tournament comeback I can ever recall, when the 4-seed Cards were down 20 to 8-seed West Virginia in the 2005 Elite 8. The Mountaineers went an earth-shattering 18-of-27 from 3-point range and Pitino somehow figured out a way to get his crew to claw all the way back and win that NCAA Regional Final in Albuquerque.
And the press conferences. Oh, the press conferences.
Just at Louisville, he answered longtime WAVE 3 sports anchor Bob Domine’s phone at a press conference and had a conversation with someone on the other end who apparently wanted to meet for a drink.
Or the time when he spoke out about the Karen Sypher extortion case and told the fans that “we need to get onto the important things in life – like the economy.”
The best of Rick Pitino came a little later in that day when he blamed the media for providing coverage of a Sypher interview on a day that the rest of the nation mourned… I guess.
“Everything that’s been printed, everything that’s been reported, everything that’s been breaking in the news on the day Ted Kennedy died is 100 percent a lie, a lie,” Pitino said (italic emphasis added).
That’s so great!
Or when former Notre Dame coach and ESPN analyst Digger Phelps said in 2013 that no No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament was going to make the Final Four and Rick Pitino called him out at a press conference saying, “All you have to do is (predict against) Digger, and you got a great chance of winning, because he’s never right. That’s why keeping winning… . He knows nothing.” Awesome. By the way, Rick was right. Louisville went on to win the national championship*.
Even the non-press conferences were awesome. I’m referring, of course, to the times where he would lose to John Calipari and the University of Kentucky and just wouldn’t show up at the podium. A mad Pitino was a great Pitino at the microphone…at least when he showed up.
And then there are the memorable times before he even got to the podium, like when he made some sort of gesture to Wildcats fans as he walked off the Rupp Arena floor and though the tunnel. Perhaps he was just scratching his head. Or perhaps it was a ‘bird’ of some sort.
Speaking of Calipari, Pitino’s collisions with him are legendary. No matter how much the two tried to sugarcoat it to their respective local media, the relationship between the two never seemed to be anything better than adversarial at best.
When the annual UofL vs. UK game came around, the two were always asked about it. They would always downplay it. Calipari seemed to come the closest to coming clean about their connection. “I mean, look, we’re 90 miles away from each other and at competitive, rival schools,” Calipari said before their last meeting against each other one year ago this month. “You know, it’s hard to send each other Christmas cards. It is what is.”
Sadly, we must correct that last sentence now. It was what it was. And it was awesome.
The good news for Pitino in the rivalry? Even though Calipari was 8-2 against Pitino during their rivalry, ol’ Rick P got the last laugh in a 73- 70 win over Cal. He got the last laugh.
But, sadly, that’s not the image many will remember.
In fact, the last image we have of him truly representing the University of Louisville is in a super-show-off-your-muscles-and-nipples type Lamar Jackson jersey on College Gameday back when ESPN thought Cardinal Football was a title contender.
There’s something funny about that, even if you’re a diehard Cards fan – this is the last moment Pitino publicly represented this iniversity in a proud way. It’s OK to chuckle. It’s almost therapeutic. It’s cathartic.
There’s zero doubt that he’s one of the smartest X-and-O basketball coaches of our lifetime. And, no matter who replaces him at UofL permanently, it’s going to be tough to replicate that intelligence.
And the bravado. Definitely the bravado.
I miss Rick PItino. At least on the court and at the podium. And it’s starting to hit me right now.