How will I remember Rick Pitino? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself all afternoon.
I know what you’re thinking. Tyler, you work for KSR. Shut up, you’re ecstatic. You all make a living off making fun of Rick. You’re dancing on his grave. And yes, while it’s true that in many ways, my livelihood is tied to Pitino and Louisville’s MANY scandals, shortcomings, and general mockability, I thought this would feel better. I thought I would be happier. But I’m not. And sadly, I think I know why.
Pitino’s demise means I have to process how I truly feel about the man, and, underneath all the jokes, that is a complicated matter. Growing up, he was a god. He brought Kentucky back from the dead and became so beloved that people snuck into his yard and collected grass clippings to frame and hang on their wall. The reason the 1992 loss to Duke hurt so much is how far we had come; Christian Laettner’s shot was like a heart stomp to show us we were still alive. The 90s were absolute glory years, and I have all the cheesy t-shirts — always purchased at a stand on the side of Man O’War — to prove it. For a preteen tomboy like myself, life didn’t get better than Kentucky’s run in 96-97-98. Camelot was a very real thing, and while it was heartbreaking when Pitino left for Boston, you were able to deal with it because he was going to the NBA. It was the next level, after all. The Celtics, nonetheless.
Fast forward a few years to Pitino’s return in 2001. For Kentucky fans, it was one of those, “you’ll never forget where you were” days. Coincidentally, I was in Louisville at a high school journalism conference at the Galt House. To be quite honest, the sting from hearing that news for the first time has never really gone away. Pitino choosing to return to college basketball as the head coach of our archrival didn’t feel like a coincidence; it felt like the worst kind of betrayal. Outsiders can go on all they want about how he had the right to take whichever job he liked (duh), and maybe he just loved the state of Kentucky so much he wanted to come back in some way (ha!), but that single act cemented how most of the fanbase would feel about him for life. A traitor. Benadict-ino. All of the malice Kentucky fans have had for Pitino in the past 16 years goes back to that very moment.
For me, those feelings festered over the years until John Calipari came and, like Pitino, brought Kentucky back to life. Like Pitino, he had that unique kind of swagger required for the job; however, Cal was even better at it. While Rick held the fanbase at arms length so they wouldn’t mess up his clothes, Cal went in for a full bear hug, feeding and nurturing a wounded Big Blue Nation back to terrifying health. Not only was Cal winning big, he was beating the snot of out Pitino while he was doing it, which was music to all of our ears.
Even better, Pitino himself began to crumble. The Karen Sypher scandal in 2009 seemed almost too ridiculous to believe — which, in retrospect, has become a familiar refrain with Pitino. He had sex with a woman in a restaurant? On a table? He did it down his leg? In only 15 seconds?! The hurt that had morphed into resentment once again morphed into mockery and it snowballed with each win, scandal, and stupid slogan that came out of Louisville. As the Calipari/Pitino rivalry grew — and boy, did it — Pitino became a caricature to Kentucky fans. Can’t beat Cal! Looks like a corpse! Did it on a table with Karen Sypher!
Pitino leading the Cards to a (now defunct) National Championship the same year Cal and the Cats went to the NIT was a minor blip on the radar; the chance for Cal’s doubters to stand up and finally say the things they’ve been wanting to since he came on board. Thankfully, the world righted itself the next March when Kentucky beat Louisville in the Sweet 16, as sweet a victory as these eyes have seen.
A year later, the sex scandal broke and Pitino’s House of Cards began to tumble down around him. The jokes got easier. The traffic got crazier. Pitino became a villain from a bad 90s movie, furtively denying any wrongdoing as the room around him went up in flames. Only the hardcore Louisville fans bothered to defend him anymore because, really, how do you defend hookers in the dorm? You just can’t.
And now, we’re here. Pitino is the first domino to fall in the FBI’s probe into bribery in college basketball, and when you think about it, it’s laughably pathetic. Shoe companies interfering in college basketball has been going on for decades, and of course Pitino is the first to take the fall. He’s the most scandalous scoundrel who ever scoudreled. And of course he’s denying it all. He’s gotta get a check, after all.
Pitino leaving. pic.twitter.com/1HE3gOZQnx
– Marcus Green (@MarcusGreenWDRB) September 27, 2017
So, why don’t I feel better? The day we’ve been waiting for is finally here. It’s Christmas morning 16 years in the making, but instead of feeling glee, I just feel kind of empty. Honestly, the video of Pitino walking out of the President’s office was what threw me into this funk. The man I’ve watched roam the sidelines — both home and away — was reduced to one last smirk, one final exit stage right, his shoulders slumped.
Pitino is a great coach; there’s no denying that. But he is also a proven liar and a master manipulator. Objectively, he is reaping what he is sowing. But for Kentucky fans, he’s also the ex, specifically the one that keeps messing up but you find yourself still checking on. You tell yourself it’s to feel better about how far you’ve come, but really, you look back because there was something there once, and it will always kind of hurt.