Pitino good as gone from Bluegrass

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rick Pitino's farewell speech will be poignant. He will speak of his love of Kentucky, and the lure of home. He will tell us of his torment, of being forced to choose between the greatest job in basketball and a greater challenge in the old neighborhood.

He will spend the next week scripting his lines. The plot, however, is pretty much set.

The University of Kentucky basketball coach announced Friday that he was as good as gone. He leaves Sunday on a golfing expedition to Ireland. Barring a really bad lie at Bally Bunion or Killarney's Kileen, Pitino will be running the New Jersey Nets by early June.

''This is not a coaching change,'' Pitino said at a press conference Friday. ''This is a career move. I've been here seven years, probably six years longer than you all thought I would be here. Seven years is a long time.''

True enough. Pitino career has been too peripatetic to expect permanence, and his success was sure to keep the offers coming. Even before UK won the NCAA Championship on April 1, Pitino's departure from Lexington appeared virtually predestined.

If the Wildcats had not won it all with the talent Pitino assembled last season, remaining at UK might not have seemed such a comfortable option. Once they had won, what was there left to prove? Once a man has climbed a mountain, next comes the inevitable question: What next?

For Pitino, situation changed

The mercenaries among us - myself included - wondered what possessed Pitino to spurn the Nets' original offer. It reportedly included a five-year, $20 million contract, a Manhattan apartment, and 16 months of payments on his Lexington mortgage.

''I have no interest in any (other) situation right now,'' Pitino insisted. ''It wouldn't matter what opened up.''

Pitino probably should have qualified his remarks, but he was still recruiting players for next season at the time and he may not have anticipated Antoine Walker declaring for the NBA draft.

Then the Nets came back with an offer that included complete control of their basketball operation and an equity interest in the franchise. Then they made an appeal to Rick Pitino's heart, and another to his ego.

''They said we'd like to see you come home,'' Pitino recalled Friday, ''and build a model of excellence.''

Huggins: NBA is big business

Who among us would not be swayed by a sales pitch that included multiple millions and carte blanche? Who wouldn't want the chance to return home with a hero's welcome and the latitude to become a legend? What could possibly keep Rick Pitino at UK in the face of all that?

''For me, it boiled down to being able to have a positive influence on young people,'' said University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, of his brief dalliance with the NBA's Miami Heat last summer. The money is so big, Huggins conceded, ''It's hard not to catch your eye,'' but it is not the only consideration.

''The appealing thing about the NBA is that all you've got to do is coach,'' Huggins said. ''(But) It's a business. You don't have any interaction with the players and they don't want to have any interaction with you.''

Rick Pitino's reputation would not suggest personal relationships are his highest priority. Most of his career decisions have been motivated by ambition rather than ambiance, and were made over his wife's objections.

Now that he has achieved his ambition at Kentucky, he needs a new world to conquer. The Nets' deal looks so near done now that speculation centers on who will succeed Pitino at UK. (Maybe Massachusetts coach John Calipari. Perhaps the Portland Trail Blazers' P.J. Carlesimo. Certainly no shortage of qualified applicants.)

''This program, if I was to leave yesterday, would not miss a beat,'' Pitino said Friday. ''Seven years ago, I could not say that. That's what I am most proud of today. This program does not need me or any other coach to lead it. What it needs is just to carry on the great tradition that it has.''

Maybe Rick Pitino will change his mind on some foreign fairway. More likely, he will learn to say goodbye in Gaelic.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published May 25, 1996.