Thursday March 26th, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- It has grown into an NCAA tournament tradition, right up there with buzzer-beaters, dancing mascots and Bill Raftery-related drinking games (sip when he says "tin", drink when he says "onions", chug when he says something that will get CBS fined by the FCC). Perhaps the finest theater during this three-week basketball bonanza comes as coaches, on the day before they play in the Sweet 16, dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge while frenzied beat writers ask them about other jobs.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, one of the finest practitioners of the art, put on a clinic Thursday when someone brought up the opening at Arizona. Pitino's Cardinals face the Wildcats on Friday, meaning Pitino himself can summarily dismiss interim coach Russ Pennell if the seeds hold. That would officially open Lute Olson's old job. Pitino probably could have it if he wants it, or he could use it to get a raise at Louisville. Naturally, the wily veteran cracked a joke before he left a crack in the door.

"To be honest with you, I'm glad that I'm not living on the West Coast because I haven't heard any of that," Pitino said. "I heard a little bit more about Boston University wanting me back where I started. But I'm hoping they settle for my son."

It was like watching Picasso paint. Not only did Pitino not answer the question, he also touted son Richard, a Cardinals assistant, for his first head-coaching job. Undaunted, another intrepid reporter asked Pitino the same question -- only a lot more directly.

"I wouldn't answer any question about any other job because it would be disrespectful to the University of Louisville," Pitino said. "You know, any time you hear a player stand up here and say, I'm not going pro, I'm coming back -- he's gone. Any time a coach says he's not interested in a job, he's dead interested in a job.

"So, you know, I don't mislead you. All I can tell you is for eight years I've given every ounce I've had to the University of Louisville. I will continue to do that. I can poke fun and make all the jokes in the world, but there's the truth."

Pitino has more experience than most. He was asked about the New York Knicks job in 1987 (took it), the L.A. Lakers job in 1994 (stayed at Kentucky), the Boston Celtics job in 1997 (took it), the Kentucky job in 2007 and 2009 (wasn't interested and still isn't interested) and the Providence job in 2008 (the parties talked, but Pitino stayed at Louisville).

Pitino is the master, but what is a less experienced coach to do? Should he trust his instincts? Probably not a good idea. Do that, and a coach might wind up the hardwood equivalent of Nick Saban, who famously said he wasn't going to be the Alabama coach not long before he became ... the Alabama coach. So, young, hot coaches, feel free to clip and save this handy list of strategies for answering questions about which jobs you are -- and aren't -- considering.

Play dumb: Pitino executed this one masterfully Thursday. Notice how he kicked off his answer with a crack about not hearing those rumors. This provides plausible deniability.

Pass the buck: Florida coach Billy Donovan's team was practicing for a Sweet 16 matchup against Butler in 2007 when word leaked that Tubby Smith had fled Kentucky for Minnesota. Donovan immediately became the top candidate for the Kentucky job. Asked about the opening, Donovan deflected. "That has nothing to do with me; it has everything to do with Kentucky," Donovan said. "I'm not in control of any of their decision-making process. ... I cannot control different things that are out there. And it's not my place to say anything or do anything, because that is someone else's decision. That's someone else's issue. That's someone else's decision they've got to make. It's got nothing to do with me at all."

This obviously wasn't true; Donovan could have quashed the story immediately. But why would Donovan give up a bargaining chip when a fat extension awaited after a second consecutive national title? Donovan probably should have used this technique two months later. Instead, he denied talks with the Orlando Magic days before he took the Magic job and less than a week before he changed his mind and went back to Florida.

Stonewall: Missouri coach Mike Anderson employed this technique earlier this week when asked about the opening at Alabama. "We're in the Sweet 16," Anderson said. "We're talking about the Memphis Tigers today." This might be the most effective tack. It closes the door to further question, and it says absolutely nothing about the coach's motives.

Tom Izzo, who is such a master at the dodge that he once managed to issue a non-denial denial of his interest in his own school's football job, said Thursday that coaches must learn never to say never. That way, the coach isn't lying. Izzo then spent the next few minutes giving his pat answer, even though he hadn't actually been asked about another job.

"I am so happy where I'm at," Izzo said. "I have a wife and kids. My wife has a lot of family where I'm at. I have goals still of what I want to achieve at Michigan State. They have not been achieved. I'd like to leave the place not only, when I'm done, better than I got it, but I'd like to leave it with a footprint that hopefully will last many decades after."

After the press conference ended, Izzo took a few more questions off the podium. Someone asked him about the Arizona job. Izzo said he was happy in East Lansing, that he had plenty left to accomplish at Michigan State.

But he never said never.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.