TO: A. RUPP
Kentucky Bluegrass Heaven
Dear Adolph...stop...Brace ya'self...stop...New coach a Yankee...stop...Says he'll be playing walk-ons, turning Wildcat Lodge into weight room—or museum—and scheduling Murray State...stop...In debut he wore blue shirt with white collar and cuffs!...stop...Folks in the audience put on masks so they all looked like him...stop...Players introduced with rock music...stop...Cats pressed and trapped all over court, shot threes out their ears, dressed up in spandex under-tights!...stop...Destroyed Ohio U 76-73...stop...Oh, yeah, in second game Big Blue got outshot, outrebounded by Indiana, let Hoosiers score 16 straight points and was getting its rear end run out of the Hoosier Dome by a score of 70-60 with 4:50 left...stop...Still, Cats rallied, had last shot to pull off upset...stop...Kentucky lost 71-69...stop...Something you might remember is back, called attitude, desire, "try"...top...So don't turn over yet, Baron...stop...We sure do like this guy!
Like him? When the announcer fairly bellowed, "The Rick Pitino era at the University of Kentucky is about to begin! Let's give a great welcome to Riiiick Pitinoooo!" just before the opening tip against Ohio on Nov. 28 in Lexington, the more than 23,000 Kentuckiacs wearing Rick Pitino cardboard face masks—they had been standing in ovation from the moment the savior himself made his first official entrance onto the Rupp Arena floor—gave ample evidence that the occasion inaugurated far more than just a fine romance.
December 11, 1989
Pitino had not ordered the masks, of course—credit a local grocery chain—nor did he know he was about to make an Elvis-inspired entrance until seconds before he went on. This should have been paradise for the 37-year-old Pitino, a coaching prodigy whose ego is boundless enough that it has been said he wouldn't have minded at all if his last team had changed its name to the New York Ricks. Yet, as he strode past the multitudes who were wearing his face and clapping for him, he appeared uncomfortable, even slightly embarrassed. "I didn't know what to do," he said later.
So Pitino marched right over to the visiting team's bench and shook hands with Ohio coach Larry Hunter. No big deal. That's what they do in the NBA, too.
The problems came later when, among other things, Pitino 1) started to give the signal for a 20-second time-out—there is no such animal in college basketball; 2) caught himself searching his bench for Patrick Ewing, only to find a skinny, bespectacled scholar named Johnathan Davis among his NCAA-probation-depleted squad loaded with high school-sized players; and 3) nearly forgot to shake Hunter's hand at the end of what may turn out to be—in this season at least—a rare and joyous Kentucky victory.
"It was just like early in my first year back from Providence with the Knicks," Pitino said. "That time I was screaming, 'Five, Five! Five!' for a five-second call that doesn't even exist in pro ball. Everybody was looking at me like I was crazy. Then, against Ohio, we're in a drought, and I start to call for a 20-second timeout. Lucky my assistants stopped me. Unbelievable."
Pitino could be excused for confusing the subtleties of the pro and college games, because he has switched coaching venues back and forth from campus to the NBA five times in the last seven years. One cynical journalist once called him "Larry Brown with training wheels." But, hey, when a coach with Pitino's brilliant rèsumè even hints that he might become available, any administrator in his right mind would stand below Pitino's balcony singing, "Ricky, don't lose my number."
Kentucky's new athletic director, C.M. Newton, who was charged with putting the Wildcats' house back in order following the scandal-plagued years of coaches Joe B. Hall and Eddie Sutton, figured he needed Pitino to handle the peculiar pressures and hardships of Kentucky basketball. NCAA penalties have taken the Wildcats off live television for a year, barred them from the NCAA tournament for two seasons—Kentucky can't even play in its own Southeastern Conference tournament—and limited their scholarships to three a year for the next two seasons.
Moreover, the Cats' probation caused their leading scorer (LeRon Ellis, now at Syracuse), rebounder (Chris Mills, Arizona) and assist man (Sean Sutton, Lexington Community College, which has no team) of last season to transfer, leaving their former team not only high and dry but short and unsweet. This Wildcat squad is the smallest (no one is taller than 6'7") and probably the least talented since Lexington mayor Scotty Baesler (5'11½") laced up his sneakers for the varsity in 1962.
With no light at the end of the tunnel and nothing but locomotives bearing down—Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame join Indiana on the Cats' schedule—it was hardly the time for Newton to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey in selecting a new leader. "Initially, the Commonwealth went from denial to embarrassment, then from admission to resolve to let's do it right and get the right person," says Newton, the well-respected former Alabama and Vanderbilt coach. Newton was dubbed Kentucky's "director of corrections" by his friend Indiana coach Bob Knight. His choice for warden—after Lute Olson used Kentucky, once again, to bargain up his salary at Arizona and Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo responded lukewarmly—was the high-profile Pitino.
"Let's face it. You can't low-key Kentucky basketball," says Newton. "I'm not a gimmick guy. But the masks and music and introductions that first night—we needed that. We needed to start having fun around here again."
And don't spare the expense. Along with his base salary of $105,000, the money from Pitino's TV and radio shows, summer camps, shoe contract and other endorsements could swell his annual earnings to a tidy $855,000. That's more than Bush and Gorbachev make combined, and they've both had better years.
But not better decades. Call Pitino the Resurrector. At Boston University he turned around a team that had won 17 games over two years and produced the same number of victories in the very first of his five seasons. Following a two-year stint as a Knick assistant, Pitino went to Providence, which had been 11-20 the year before, and guided them to 17-14 and 25-9 seasons. The Knicks were the worst team in the NBA for three seasons before Pitino returned to his hometown team, this time as head coach. Two years later they won 52 games, finished first in the Atlantic Division and were 4-0 against the eventual league champion Detroit Pistons.
Naturally, Newton and Kentucky overlooked Pitino's rough edges. While an assistant at Hawaii, Pitino was implicated by the NCAA for eight different rules violations, and last spring former Rainbow coach Bruce O'Neil told the Lexington Herald-Leader, "Rick's always had trouble with loyalties." With the Knicks he had a bitter falling-out with general manager Al Bianchi, whose animosity lingers to this day.
Pitino has been accessible to Kentucky writers, even while keeping them at arm's length from his players, mostly through closed practices. "With all the investigations and negative publicity, my team was embittered toward the press," Pitino says. "I told them that was wrong. But I also told them access was being limited, that they would not have to be interviewed every waking moment."
Pitino himself gets very little shuteye. Office hours routinely begin at 6 a.m. Postgame, he studies tapes into the wee hours. He even enjoys recruiting, "the thrill of the chase, the competitiveness of it," he says.
"Coach lives to compete," said Derrick Miller, the Wildcats' senior guard, after the narrow loss to the Hoosiers last Saturday. "He told us never to back down from Indiana, to stick it to them."
Kentucky forced 25 turnovers by a confused, freshman-dominated Hoosier team but came up short when guard Sean Woods missed a 20-footer at the buzzer. "We sent a message today," Miller said. "I've played on good Kentucky teams with [Rex] Chapman and [Ed] Davender. But they never competed like this team did today."
Before one ball was tipped this season, Pitino threw his competitive spear toward hated intrastate rival Louisville, blasting Cardinals coach Denny Crum for a dinner that Crum had with the mother of Dwayne Morton, a high school recruit who committed to Louisville instead of the Cats—a dinner Crum admitted was a recruiting violation. "I have no trouble with Louisville breaking the rules," Pitino says. Ouch. "I just refuse to play on unequal ground."
Similarly he does not suffer ghouls gladly, specifically those attempting to swipe an edge. When Knight confronted referee Ed Hightower over a noncall at the end of the first half of the Indiana-Kentucky game, Pitino was livid. Pointing, screaming, bearing down on Hightower, Pitino berated him, saying, "I've coached 200 pro games. Just ignore him!" When Hightower called the coaches together at the start of the second half, Knight declined the invitation, so a lovely little mutual-hate affair may have started already.
"This is all dèjà vu for me," says Kentucky graduate assistant Billy Donovan, the little doughboy whom Pitino turned into the three-point shooting fool who led Providence to the 1987 Final Four. "Coach's preparation is incredible. He doesn't just know the game, he attacks it."
Pitino was quick to institute major changes in a program that had grown as stale as it was crooked. All bases were covered, from the team garb—the Wildcats switched shoes from Nike to Converse, the company that pays Pitino a bundle, and they really do look quite good in those trendy and hamstring-warming bike pants—to the practice facilities at Memorial Coliseum.
Pitino was appalled to discover that the team was using lockers left over from 1951, when Newton lettered for Rupp's third national champions. So private benefactors donated $1 million for renovations, including new glass-walled offices overlooking the practice floor and, yes, new chalkboards.
Pitino easily won over the Kentucky students with such ideas as a scrimmage open only to them, and signs emblazoned with a 3, which the students hold up every time a Cat jerks up a trifecta. The students chant "three!" when the ball goes in.
Pitino also has vowed to move his team out of Wildcat Lodge, the plush athletes-only facility, and back into regular student dorms, the better to integrate them into campus life; to hurl paranoia to the winds and schedule lesser instate schools, like Murray State; and to ride herd on his players' minds as well as their bodies. "The man isn't playing around," says Miller, who was barred from eight practices after he missed eight classes in summer school. "I've never been a discipline guy, but this coach has cleaned up my act."
In the off-season, unprecedented running and weightlifting—in preparation for Pitino's exhausting, full-court, 40-minute pressure defense and fast-draw attack—resulted in sophomores Deron Feldhaus, a forward, and Richie Farmer, a guard, both losing almost 25 pounds, just as Donovan once did at Providence. "I didn't know what 'shape' meant," said Farmer, who told Pitino that he trained all summer on Bud Light at the fishing hole back home in the foothills of Clay County.
"The biggest difference around here is atmosphere," says junior forward Reggie Hanson. "Last year everything was 'investigation.' It got to where we didn't want to go to practice or even play the games. It was so depressing. With Coach Pitino, everybody goes around with a smile on his face."
That's especially so when Pitino's New York accent clashes with Farmer's mountain twang. To set up one of Kentucky's plays, Pitino used to shout "fist" and a perplexed Farmer used to answer "fi-erst?" As soon as the two bewildered linguists got that straightened out, Pitino confused everybody again by talking about "toynaments." You know, the NCAA toynament, the NIT toynament. "Both Richie and Coach need speech therapists," says Hanson.
On Saturday, after roaring ahead of Indiana by 11 points in both halves, then falling behind by those 10 late in the game and shooting a pathetic .361 for the day, but clawing back with its oppressive defense, all Kentucky needed was one last basket to earn one of the epic upsets of the decade against Indiana's scarily accomplished freshmen. But Woods's miss didn't dampen Pitino's irrepressible spirit.
"I've never been prouder of a team in my life," he said. "The hardest part is getting these guys to believe they can beat anybody, but they may have already convinced themselves of that today. We learned a valuable lesson in losing, but that's what this season is all about. We're going to keep growing and pointing to two years from now."
By which time, not only should Pitino be able to pronounce "toynament," but all his overachieving little Rickettes could win one as well.