Much like a tattoo of a woman’s name on your chest makes you hers forever, (or until you meet someone else who loves Mt. Dew as much as you do) Rick Pitino’s decision to tattoo Louisville on his back felt like the final nail in the coffin. Pitino belongs to Louisville now. Or so it seems, anyway. Pitino hasn’t coached at the University of Kentucky for 16 years. The amount of time away from Lexington and the hallowed halls of Rupp Arena isn’t the point of debate or even an issue. Plenty of coaches give their time, energy and heart to a university before moving on to something else, whether it be another team or another walk of life. Much can be debated about Pitino and his legacy in the blue and white, but his efforts to bring Kentucky basketball out of a dark shadow and back into the spotlight on the way to one of the school’s treasured national championships, cannot be disregarded or downplayed. The rafters are a little cozier because of Pitino, and for that, we can all agree we are grateful.
Adolp Rupp is ours, and will always be ours. He has an arena named after him and enough hardware to warrant a bigger trophy case. Joe B. Hall is ours, and has stayed ours, continuing to be an ever-present figure in Lexington. Everything about Joe B. Hall drips with Kentucky tradition. Tubby Smith is ours too, whether you agree or not, in large part because he spent the bulk of his career at Kentucky and also won a national title. Although the ties might not be as strong as with Rupp and with Hall, Smith’s ties are certainly not stronger anywhere else. But what about Rick Pitino? Do you still consider Pitino to be “ours?” Or, in the words of Don McLean, when was “the day the music died?” When was the moment when Pitino stopped being the most closely associated with Kentucky basketball?
…Was it when he chose to leave Kentucky for the Boston Celtics?
I think as Kentucky fans, we all felt the sting of Pitino’s departure for the NBA. After all, he was coming off of two of the most exciting and successful back-to-back seasons in Kentucky basketball history, with another promising one on the horizon. One year out from a national championship, and just a few weeks removed from a runner-up finish, and Pitino bolted for the Boston Celtics and the chance to boost his resume’ and ego at the NBA level. While the pill was bitter and hard to swallow, especially considering the potential for an absolute college basketball dynasty that was clearly sitting in the palm of his hands… Pitino wasn’t leaving us for another college basketball program. Pitino was taking a “step up” that plenty of college basketball coaches before him have taken.
I would venture to say that at that point, disappointment aside, most people would still almost whole-heartedly claim Pitino.
…Was it when Pitino took the Louisville job?
The writing was on the wall for Pitino to return to college basketball. His stint with the Celtics was short-lived and short on success as well. Pitino’s return to the ground that made him was inevitable. But he could have gone anywhere else and it would have been less of a blow than him choosing Kentucky’s in-state and arguably biggest rival, Louisville. Pitino crawled in
bed a booth with the enemy and very little about the situation seemed to sit right with Kentucky fans. Pitino could have picked other opportunities, but he chose Louisville. He chose to be right down the road and right in the faces of the fan base he left not so long ago. A team he once went toe-to-toe with as a Wildcat, he was now pouring his heart into and trying to out-dual Kentucky with…
I think Pitino lost the adoration of quite a few Kentucky fans with this move. Still, plenty of fans still appreciated what he did for Kentucky and tried to separate the two eras.
…Was it when it became clear that Pitino was going to be staying at Louisville for a long time?
All coaches come into a new job at a school promising to stay loyal to that university for the long haul. If the college coaching carousel has taught us anything, it is that we should take these passionate words spoken early on with a grain of salt. Some believed that Pitino might be using Louisville as a stepping stone, either for a different college head coaching job or for another go at the NBA. When the years continued to pass, and Pitino was still raising L’s, it became obvious that he probably wasn’t going to be leaving any time soon.
The longer Pitino stayed at Louisville, I think the harder it became to remember his association with and link him heavily to Kentucky.
…Was it when he embarrassed himself (the major one…there have been plenty of smaller embarrassments)?
When the whole Karen Sypher thing went down, I remember being glad that Pitino was more closely associated with Louisville than with his Kentucky background. That’s your mess to clean up, Tom Jurich. Not ours.
…Was it when he won a national championship with Louisville?
For the longest time, it was starting to look like Pitino might not take Louisville to the coveted promise land by winning a national title. Louisville fans had been crowing about how Pitino would bring them at least one title in his career, but a few years ago that seemed like a fading possibility. In the last 2 years, Pitino has rejuvenated his coaching career and climbed his way back to the top. The argument, “well, his only national championship came with Kentucky” no longer stands. He has one title with each now, and that might be how it all sits when the dust finally settles on his career. With one title a piece, the tug of war about which school his career would be associated with could potentially still be up for debate.
I think the length of his stay at Louisville, along with the national title, just about sealed the deal on Pitino belonging to Louisville in the end.
…Was it when he got a “champ stamp” Louisville tattoo on his awkward looking back?
As the popular rap artist Drake says, “tat my f*ckin name on you so I know it’s real.” If any doubt about who Pitino belonged to still remained, I think last week’s tattoo probably erased it.
…Or do you still consider Rick Pitino to be “ours”?
Are you one of the people who is able to completely separate his time at Kentucky from his time at Louisville? Will he always be a Wildcat in your heart? I do believe some Kentucky fans will always feel loyalty to Pitino and not have any part of that be tainted by his association with Louisville.
Personally, Rick Pitino hasn’t really felt like “ours” to me in a long time. Twenty years from now though, I did wonder how Pitino’s career would mostly be remembered. I’m still not exactly sure, and the rest remains unwritten– but he certainly feels like Louisville’s right now. And you know what? I’m okay with that. He was once ours, and those were some of the most glorious days as a Kentucky fan. The time has passed, and we will forever be grateful. Thanks for the memories…