|Pitino at 500 wins: halfway to what might have been|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 08 December 2007 11:45|
The game ball from his first win as a college head coach, a 75-71 win by Boston University over St. Peters as a fresh-faced 26-year-old on Nov. 28, 1978? Missing. Ditto for most of the mementoes from Pitino's 30-year coaching career.
``I have no idea where most of them are, probably in storage somewhere,'' he said.
That doesn't bode well for the ball Pitino will be handed after claiming his 500th victory as a college head coach. His first shot at joining the 500-win club was denied Saturday, when the 14th-ranked Cardinals lost 70-65 to Dayton.
His next opportunity will come against Purdue in the John Wooden Tradition next Saturday in Indianapolis.
Reaching 500 wins is rarified air to be sure, but there's still a whiff of missed opportunity for the only coach in NCAA history to lead three different teams to the Final Four.
Pitino spent eight years coaching in the NBA during two stints with the New York Knicks and one with the Boston Celtics. If he'd been in the college ranks those years, adding the 23.5 wins per season he's averaged in 21 years as a college coach, he'd be on the cusp of 700 wins by now.
The number rises considerably if you bump the wins per year to 30.8 - what Kentucky averaged under Pitino in the five years before he bolted for the Celtics in 1997. It was a heady pace that could have put the 55-year-old on track to surpass 1,000 career victories.
Mention to Pitino that his sojourns in the NBA might have cost him a shot at becoming college basketball's winningest coach, and he admits there were things he sacrificed by leaving the comfort of the college game.
``From the standpoint of missing out on some golden years at the college level, there's no doubt I did that,'' he said.
How golden? He's younger than almost all of the 16 active Division I coaches ahead of him in career wins, and none of them spent nearly a decade outside of the college game during their prime.
Ask if he ever wonders what would have happened if he'd been able to resist the lure of the NBA, and he admits there are times he looks back at the brash young coach who kept one eye on the court and the other looking for the next opportunity and wishes he would have relaxed and just enjoyed what was in front of him.
``I was so anxious to move on and prove myself both financially and personally for myself and my family,'' he said. ``I look back and I look at mistakes I've made, and the one thing I preach to everybody is learn from the past, don't live in it. Plan for the future, but don't live in it.
``At Providence I was enjoying it. At Kentucky we had it rolling. I don't think there was a program any hotter at the time,'' added Pitino, who won the national title with the Wildcats in 1996 and lost to Arizona in the national championship game a year later. ``I wonder how long we could have kept it going.''
He'll never know.
By '97 he had restored Kentucky's reputation. But having grown up in the Northeast watching the battles between the Knicks and the Celtics, Pitino couldn't resist the opportunity of trying to resurrect the NBA's most storied franchise.
``I thought that type of situation would be fun, it's what gets you going,'' he said.
It ended up not going anywhere. Pitino's collegiate success never fully translated to the pros, though he maintains the lessons learned with the Knicks and the Celtics made him a better coach.
``It made me more mature, much more understanding of why you win and why you lose,'' Pitino said. ``Although we lost and there were some rough times, I wouldn't trade the adversity.''
Now he wouldn't trade the peace he's found at Louisville. Taking over a program that struggled in the last days of Denny Crum, Pitino needed just four years to get the Cardinals back to the Final Four. A new downtown arena will open in 2010 to replace outdated Freedom Hall, and he could have his best recruiting class yet enter the program next fall.
Son Richard joined the Cardinals as an assistant this year, as did former Kentucky star Walter McCarty. Nearly two dozen former assistants have gone on to become college coaches, and he revels in their accomplishments more than he reflects on his own.
Still, he's not ready to think about his legacy. Trim if a little pale from thousands of hours spent under a gym's fluorescent lights, he's as healthy as he's ever been. The medical problem that forced him to take a brief leave of absence in 2004 is a distant memory. Though he's traded hour-long runs on the treadmill for the elliptical machine to keep the pressure off his knees, he remains energetic and charismatic.
``As soon as I committed here, people would come up to me that I didn't even know and be like, 'You know he's crazy, right? You know he's going to get on you,''' said freshman guard Preston Knowles. ``I had heard some stuff, but can it really be that bad? Then I first met him in the offseason and I was like 'Oh, this guy ain't that bad.''
Then the season started and the coach who had been so friendly during the recruiting process changed.
``Before practice we can be shooting around and laughing, and coach, as soon as he walks in, it's dead silence,'' Knowles said. ``It's like eating lunch when the bully comes around and everybody stops and puts their heads down.''
It's a story McCarty just laughs at. McCarty has been with Pitino through the highs at Kentucky and the lows with the Celtics. Now, as an assistant coach with the Cardinals, McCarty sees a more relaxed side of the coach he lived in fear of as a player.
``We can be in the car, and a song will come on and in two beats he's got it,'' McCarty said. ``He's hip to a lot of stuff. He's created such a network during his lifetime, it's incredible. He's got so many other things on his plate other than basketball, he could probably do whatever he wants.''
How much longer can he keep going? He's not sure. He'll turn 61 when his contract expires in 2013. Athletic director Tom Jurich said in the spring that he hopes to coax Pitino into at least one more extension.
Whatever happens, there will be life after basketball for a man who has collaborated on a handful of books, dreams of having one of his horses win the Kentucky Derby and is sought after as a motivational speaker.
Pitino won't put a timetable on it, but he knows he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Not that he's thinking about it. He spent too much time in his youth worrying about the next step. This time, it can wait.
``If we start talking about that, then it means I'm really winding it down,'' he said. ``I have too much love for this game to wind down.''