Knees bent, feet wide, hands tugging up his sweatpants, Rick
Pitino barks orders like a terrier on amphetamines. "Jab, jab,
c'mon, jab.... Get there, O, post him.... Jump hook! Nice." It's
a shade past eight on a late October morning, and Pitino,
Louisville's first-year coach, is putting a small group of his
players through individual workouts, a task most CEO-style
coaches leave to assistants. No detail is too small to discern,
no miscue too minor to correct. "You've got to get low and wide
on defense," Pitino says, halting the drill to demonstrate the
correct posture to Larry O'Bannon, a 6'4" freshman forward.
"Establish a wide base." As O'Bannon tries to keep his man from
getting to the rim, the barking begins anew. "Low, low, stay
low.... Stay with him.... C'mon, work, work, work!"
This is the part of the job Pitino missed most after he left
Kentucky four years ago to become president and coach of the
Boston Celtics, an unhappy sojourn that constitutes the only
failure in Pitino's luminous career. Although he's not making his
return to the college game completely by choice--the Celtics were
a disappointing 102-146 during his reign--the decision to leave
Boston was his own, and he walked away from $22 million he could
have collected had he waited to be fired. Pitino, 49, relishes
the chance to prove anew his lifelong conviction that anyone can
become anything he wants as long as he's willing to work. "I
found out I would rather try to teach a kid to be a pro than
coach in the pros," he says.
Says Cardinals forward Hajj Turner, a 6'8" senior, "He's been at
every practice, every meeting, running everything from the office
to the equipment room. You can tell he enjoys it."
Pitino's confidence is still intact despite his time in Boston.
"I won't say I'm humbled, but I know where I didn't do a good
job," he says. Still, this isn't the same Earl of Ego who
pranced into the University of Kentucky 12 years ago looking to
fashion an empire in his own image. Chastened by failure with
the Celtics and stunned by two recent deaths in his family,
Pitino, who signed a six-year, $12.25 million contract with
Louisville last spring, isn't pursuing greatness so much as
happiness. "My days of trying to move up the ladder are over,"
he says. "I want to do what I love best--put together a unit
that's unselfish, plays great defense and has the potential to
get better. That's really it."
If that attitude holds, it would be a far cry from the
churlishness he sometimes displayed at Kentucky, where he
thought nothing of upbraiding a low-level athletic-department
employee who dared approach him after a loss. Pitino's last few
Wildcats teams were brilliant basketball machines, especially
the 1996 national champions, but they were assembled in a
humorless, corporate way. After Pitino left for Boston, his
former players marveled that his successor, Tubby Smith,
actually asked them about their girlfriends and their personal
Since taking over at Louisville for Denny Crum, whom the school
bought out for $7 million last March, Pitino has breathed life
into a once-mighty program that had grown torpid, having failed
to make the NCAA tournament twice in the last four years and
having lost in the first round in the other two. Pitino helped
raise $1 million to replace the Cardinals' practice floor and
renovate their locker and weight rooms. He turned a courtside
storage space into a cardio-workout facility. He revamped the
coaches' offices, replacing Crum's black-and-gray scheme with
bright carpets and lots of light. "When the decorator asked what
I wanted, I told him, 'Make it cheerful,'" he says.
The Celtics debacle aside, Pitino is a proven master at
rejuvenating downtrodden programs. He reversed the fortunes of
Providence, the New York Knicks and Kentucky by implementing a
running, pressing, shoot-till-you-drop style. Once again he has
made physical fitness the sine qua non of his latest reclamation
project. "I did a study of 30 NBA stars, and not one of them had
more than 10 percent body fat," he says. So the Louisville
players run, then they run some more. The results are starting
to show. Ellis Myles, a 6'8" sophomore who weighed 260 pounds
last season, is down to 230, with 9% body fat. Brandon Bender, a
6'9" freshman, has dropped his body fat from 21% to 9.8%. Even
45-year-old administrative assistant Scott Davenport has, at
Pitino's insistence, dropped 60 pounds since April, to 187.
If Pitino's belief in conditioning hasn't changed, neither has
his ability to rub some people the wrong way. Last April he
hired as his assistant coach Mick Cronin, who'd spent the past
four years as the top recruiter for Cincinnati's Bob Huggins,
who's now one of Pitino's biggest Conference USA rivals. By the
time Pitino called Huggins to ask permission to interview
Cronin, Huggins had heard about the courtship--and wasn't
pleased. "I hope for Mick's sake he gets that job," Huggins told
a friend, "because if he doesn't, I'm firing him." One of
Cronin's first moves for Pitino was to lock up a commitment from
Bender, a star at Louisville's Ballard High, whom Cronin had
recruited vigorously for the Bearcats.
Nor has Pitino been reluctant to take on Louisville mayor Dave
Armstrong over his efforts to lure the NBA's Charlotte Hornets to
town. During a television interview on Oct. 25 Pitino accused the
mayor of saying things to Pitino in private that differed from
what Armstrong was saying in public, prompting the mayor to tell
the Louisville Courier-Journal, "I don't know why he dislikes
me." Pitino has proposed a statewide referendum to settle the
issue, a rather disingenuous suggestion given that the Hornets
must apply for relocation by March and a referendum wouldn't be
held until next November.
It's nothing new for Pitino to immerse himself in work--this is,
afterall, a man who spent three hours on his wedding night
interviewing for a job--but there are profound reasons he is doing
so now. Last March, Don Vogt, a brother-in-law of Rick's wife,
Joanne, was struck and killed by a taxi in New York City. Then,
on Sept. 11 Billy Minardi, Joanne's brother and Rick's best
friend, was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center, where he worked as an equities trader at the bond firm of
Cantor Fitzgerald. Once coaching was a means to quench Pitino's
limitless ambition; now it's a salve for his pain.
"What I need is to be consumed with work so that when I get home,
I pass out," he says. "I'm not any less intense, but I will not
take losing the way I used to, because I can't equate it with the
feelings I have about life right now."
It may take Pitino a couple of years to trim the fat and
establish a wide base, but this much seems certain: The folks in
Louisville won't have to take losing for much longer.