By: Jeff Goodman
College Basketball Insider
ATLANTA — Rick Pitino stood a few feet to the side of the basket, his hand interlocked with his wife Joanne’s. Neither were unable to contain their emotion as One Shining Moment blared throughout the Georgia Dome. This had to be a dream.
Pitino’s marriage nearly fell apart five years ago after he admitted to having sexual relations with another woman and it played out in front of the country, even the world, in the media. There were jokes, there was humiliation. His career seemed over a couple years ago when he was getting annihilated on the court and in recruiting circles by the guy who he couldn’t stand, Kentucky’s John Calipari.
But here he was, hugging and kissing his bride of more than 35 years, in a scene that didn’t look improbable not all that long ago. It looked virtually impossible.
There he was, sitting on the podium exactly one year after Calipari won his first title, becoming the first coach in history to get one with two different schools.
It had been an emotional week, beginning on Wednesday when he almost simultaneously learned that his son, Richard, had accepted the Minnesota job and also that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Just following the win Saturday against Wichita State in the national semifinals, Pitino watched the replay of his horse, Goldencents, winning the Santa Anita Derby, thus qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.
Then he cut down the nets on Monday night after Louisville’s 82-76 victory over Michigan in the national title game.
It’s all been against the odds for Pitino, whose life has been a virtual roller-coaster ride over the last couple decades or so. There was the national title in 1996 with Kentucky, then the train wreck three-plus seasons in Boston with the Celtics. He took Louisville to a Final Four, but then came the Sypher mess, in which she tried to extort him and also claimed it was rape.
“We’re a family that’s had a lot of difficult times,” Rick Pitino said.
“Our family has been through a lot,” his son, Richard, added. “But it’s made us stronger. It’s made my dad stronger.”
Pitino has moved past it, but won’t ever forget. He won’t forget his best friend, his brother-in-law Billy Minardi, who died in the World Trade Center attacks back on Sept. 11. He won’t forget about what he did to his family with the Sypher situation. He won’t forget where this program was just a few years ago when everyone had written him off following a 20-13 campaign in which the Cardinals were knocked out of the tournament in the first round.
That’s what makes this so special. That’s what makes this smile so real.
Rick the Ruler is gone. Sure, he still yells and screams at his players, he still makes his assistant coaches make a certain weight. But he’s not the same guy he was the last time he cut down the nets in 1996.
“He’s changed,” Richard Pitino said. “He’s been humbled.”
He had no choice. That’s what nearly losing everything will do to an individual. He nearly lost his family, and nearly watched his career be taken away.
Pitino didn’t take shots at Calipari this season even though he certainly could have done so with that “other” team struggling to an NIT bid. Instead, he elected to take the high road, when that wasn’t always the case in the past. Pitino has grown, as a person and a coach. This group wasn’t nearly as talented as the one in ’96 that was loaded with pros, but it won because the players genuinely bonded with one another and their coach.
Pitino appeared in a state of shock as the clock ticked down and the final buzzer sounded. It was less than three years ago that he was testifying against Sypher, about the same time as Calipari wasn’t just ruling the state of Kentucky, but also ruling the entire college basketball world.
There was no way Pitino would ever be relevant again, not as long as Calipari was breathing in the Commonwealth. A year ago, Calipari took a bunch of heralded recruits and cut down the nets in New Orleans. Pitino also snipped the nets, but he did it by developing and coaching his players. There may not be a single player on this year’s team that gets selected in the first round of June’s NBA Draft. Calipari had four players off last year’s group hear their names uttered in the first round.
Pitino called his entire family up on the makeshift stage in the center of the court moments after the players had finished cutting down the nets. It was time for a photo. Children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. There were more than 25 people — and every last one of them was smiling.
None more than Joanna Pitino.
“I can’t even put it into words,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
The last few years have been overwhelming for the Pitino family. There have been tragedies, humiliation and losses.
But Rick Pitino has somehow managed to overcome it all and wind up back on top.