As insane as it is to think about, this is probably the craziest week in college basketball history, and the one thing I can’t stop thinking about is the suddenness of it all. How on Monday, programs across college basketball were just floating along, getting ready for the start of the season… only to have the FBI banging down their doors hours later. How nobody — not even the NCAA itself — saw this coming. And how at Louisville, Rick Pitino went from a guy nobody thought could possibly be fired, to a man without a job, who will likely never coach another meaningful basketball game in his life.
That’s right, Rick Pitino is out at Louisville, and it seems like for the time being everyone is focused on the present. Pitino — in a way that only he could — isn’t so much concerned about the state of his school or basketball program, as much as making sure he gets paid as much money as possible after being dismissed. Meanwhile Louisville moves on with David Padgett as their head coach, with many wondering if they can convince someone (cough, Tom Crean, cough) to take over by the start of the season.
On the other hand, with Pitino’s career now essentially done, I couldn’t help but think one thing on Wednesday afternoon: Assuming he never coaches another game in college basketball, Pitino has to have the weirdest legacy of any coach I can ever remember. He’s a guy that is respected almost universally for his basketball expertise, while loathed by basically anyone who has come into contact with him. He’s also basically the only great basketball coach I can remember — maybe the only great sports figure — who won’t even be remembered fondly by his own fans. If anything, the fans who cheered for his teams the hardest are the ones who will hate him the most going forward.
Let’s start with the basketball stuff, because as I’ve said many times, there aren’t many guys in the history of the sport who were better pure basketball coaches than this guy. Whatever you think about Pitino as a person (more on that coming) and regardless of what you think of the final few years of his career (where at best, he skirted NCAA rules and at worst he was an egregious rule breaker), his actual basketball acumen is pretty much second to none. This was a guy who got his first interim gig at 24, his first full-time head coaching job at 26 and was the coach of the New York freakin’ Knicks by the time he was in his early 30’s. Along the way he took three different schools to the Final Four including Providence — PROVIDENCE!!! — and won titles at Kentucky and Louisville (even if the latter one won’t be in the NCAA record books much longer).
No matter what you think about Rick Pitino “the guy” that’s pretty darn impressive. And as I’ve said many times before, there isn’t a single coach I can think of who was better at taking a bunch of players who don’t look like much on paper at the start of the season, and turning them into a contender by March. For lack of a better term, the dude was and is an X’s and O’s savant.
And to fully understand just how good this guy was in his prime, you have to go back to his days at Kentucky. Those were my first memorie as a college hoops fan, and for anyone who is too young to remember, all I can tell you is this: There is no one in college basketball like him right now. He was the best coach, at the best program in the sport, and the crazy thing was, he was just hitting his coaching peak when he had his best years at Kentucky. He was in his mid-40’s, and at a time when most coaches get their first job at some small school, there was Pitino building one of the greatest juggernauts college basketball has ever seen.
Again, there is no one in college basketball like Pitino was back then. The best example I can give is, picture Sean Miller… only if he was five years younger… and with a national championship and a bunch of Final Four’s instead of all those Elite Eight’s. And even then, that doesn’t fully capture how good Pitino was.
That’s also what’s made his downfall so amazing; not so much the NCAA stuff, but instead, the fact that a guy who was basically the most best coach in college basketball 20 years ago leaves for good with basically zero respect. I still haven’t seen a single person — be it a fellow coach, media member, whoever — say they’re “sad” to see him go.
And really, that’s the craziest part of this all to me. I know I’m an outsider and I don’t live in Kentucky, but I’ve been amazed at how, well, basically everybody hates the guys guts. The media almost universally agrees that he’s a con-man, as he continued to throw out his “woe-is-me, I can’t believe this all happening” B.S. every time a scandal happened (during an interview with my buddy Scott Ferrall on CBS Radio Monday night, Ferrall said “I don’t believe a single word that comes out of his mouth”). The general public can’t stand him either, not only for the NCAA stuff, for all the crazy, morally reprehensible stuff he did off the court (Believe me, I’m no moralist. But doing you-know-what? On the floor of an Italian restaurant? Really Rick?).
What’s even wilder though is that Pitino is the only truly great coach I can think of, who won at the highest levels, yet is also despised by basically every fan-base he’s ever coached for. Think about it. There are obviously the guys like Dean Smith, Coach K, whoever who are universally respected. But there are also plenty of coaches who’ve had dust-ups with the NCAA that are still pretty well-respected in their little part of the world. Just recently, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun both got in trouble late in their careers with the NCAA, yet in Syracuse and Connecticut they’re still revered. To take it outside of college basketball — and heck, even coaching — Barry Bonds is still loved in San Francisco (even if he’s hated everywhere else), and the same with Brett Favre in Green Bay. It’ll be the same when Brady and Belichick retire in New England.
But Pitino? I mean every fan-base he’s ever coached for hates his guts, right? Louisville fans are embarrassed at the way he brought shame to the city and university over the last few years. Kentucky fans can’t stand him for pretty much anything that he’s done from 2000 or so on. Everybody in the NBA thinks he’s a total joke for his time with the Celtics. So who’s left? Who’s standing up and saying “Pitino is my guy!?” The handful of fans in Providence who remember his Final Four run in the mid-80’s? Basketball junkies who care only about X’s and O’s and not morals and personal accountability? Point being, the list isn’t very long.
That’s why, like I said, I think it’s safe to say that Pitino has the most unique legacy of any coach I can remember. He’s the one coach who where I don’t feel like “time will heal all wounds.” That won’t, in five or 10 years be welcomed back to campus to remember an anniversary or a big win or one of his former players. That won’t eventually be cheered as fans remember the good times and forget about the bad.
Pitino will be remembered as just a guy.
A guy basically who was really good at one thing: Coaching college basketball.
And was pretty forgettable everywhere else.