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Pitino remains a major self-promoter

by John Feinstein The Washington Post | March 19, 2023 at 2:56 a.m.

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Rick Pitino didn't take long to leave the court Friday evening after Connecticut blew his Iona team out in the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament.

The 13th-seeded Gaels had actually led fourth-seeded Connecticut 39-37 at halftime before UConn big man Adama Sanogo's 22-point second-half performance led the Huskies to an 87-63 victory.

When the buzzer sounded, Pitino exchanged brief handshakes with the UConn coaching staff and headed for the tunnel leading to the locker room. Metaphorically at least, Elvis had left the building. Everyone in MVP Arena was almost certain Pitino had just coached his last game at Iona and will appear next, perhaps as soon as Monday, as the next coach at St. John's.

The New York media swarmed the building this weekend, not because of a sudden fascination with Iona, which now has a 1-16 record in NCAA Tournament play. Every time Pitino walked down a hallway, he looked like the pied piper with the New Yorkers trailing in his wake.

Pitino was 64-22 in three seasons at Iona, which allowed him to renew his career after he was fired by Louisville in the midst of the FBI's investigation into several college programs -- including Louisville's. Pitino is, without question, great at two things: coaching basketball and promoting Rick Pitino.

He has won 711 college games, although technically 123 of those don't count because of an NCAA investigation that caused Louisville to be the first national champion to have a title vacated (in 2013). Wins and investigations have been a part of Pitino's life since his first job as a Hawaii assistant in the 1970s. There, he and his boss Bruce O'Neil were cited for 64 NCAA violations -- eight attributed directly to Pitino.

Ten years later, when the subject came up, Pitino said, "I didn't make any mistakes. I don't care what anybody says."

That's Pitino: brilliant, arrogant and never wrong.

Pitino is never out of the spotlight. If he doesn't find it, it finds him. I first saw him coach while he was at Boston University and first realized how brilliant he was during a camp clinic in the summer of 1986. He worked for years at the famous Five Star camp in Pennsylvania that was created by Hall of Famer Howard Garfinkel. After he became a star in coaching, Pitino came back to do clinics for Garfinkel every summer.

That year, soon after the NCAA had announced it was initiating a three-point shot, Pitino came to Pittsburgh for his annual clinic. During a drill in which he was showing campers how to run a secondary fast break, one of the counselors pulled up for an 18-foot jump shot.

Pitino's whistle screeched through the gym. "Do you realize what you just did?" he asked the confused counselor, who shook his head.

"You just took what, as of now, is the worst shot in college basketball. You are one-foot inside what will be the three-point line. You always pull up outside the line, not inside the line."

Did Pitino know what he was talking about? A year later, he coached Providence to the Final Four with a team built around the three-point shooting of Billy Donovan, Delray Brooks and Pop Lewis. Pitino embraced the three-point shot while most coaches were trying to pretend it didn't exist. He was ahead of the curve on the three-point line, as well as most other things when it came to basketball.

But he fell off that curve often. He signed a five-year contract extension at Providence in the summer of 1987 and left a few weeks later to coach the New York Knicks. He rebuilt Kentucky from the ashes of probation to a national championship in 1996 and an overtime loss in the title game in 1997 and became the King of Kentucky.

Then, after talking about how much he was looking forward to the next season during his post-championship game news conference in Indianapolis, he became president/general manager/coach of the Boston Celtics.

He insisted on being given the president's title even though it was held at the time by Red Auerbach. Celtics ownership explained to Pitino that Auerbach, who was 80, was retired and the title was strictly honorary, but Pitino wouldn't back down. Auerbach was hurt but told the owners, "Just tell him if he ever wants help, he can call me."

The Celtics didn't win that spring's draft lottery despite having the NBA's worst record in the 1996-97 season, missing out on the chance to draft Tim Duncan. Pitino went 102-146 before being resigning in 2001 amid complaints about a lack of talent (he was the GM) and trashing Boston sports fans whom he said he booed Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice.

He went on to rebuild -- and wreck -- his career at Louisville, all the while remaining a pariah at Kentucky (for leaving) and in Boston (for arriving).

He will be developing plans to beat Connecticut again next season -- as part of the Big East.

It is 17.7 miles, according to Google Maps, from Iona to St. John's. You can bet Rick Pitino won't need a GPS to find the place.

Print Headline: Pitino remains a major self-promoter


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