Saturday, March 10, 2001

SULLIVAN: Big Blue fans may end up seeing red

        LOUISVILLE — Imagine Bob Huggins, seduced and then spurned by pro basketball, returning to the college game. At Xavier.

        Imagine Dean Smith, bored to tears by retirement, answering the itch to continue coaching. At Duke.

        Then try to imagine Rick Pitino at Louisville, and the chaos this would cause in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

        Delicious, isn't it?

        Nothing fuels a blood feud like a little betrayal, and the prospect of Pitino resurfacing at Freedom Hall is harder for some Kentucky fans to swallow than a gallon of kerosene. When Pitino left Lexington to run the Boston Celtics, UK fans accepted that their coach was a man in need of new mountains to

        They may not be so forgiving if he should resume his climbing at Louisville.

        “There's always going to be that segment — regardless of what you do at either school — that's going to say, "He shouldn't be at our place,'” Tay Baker said Friday. “They don't ask you about it, but you can kind of read it between the lines.”

Playing both sides

        Few men in America can better appreciate Pitino's predicament than Baker, who coached the University of Cincinnati for seven seasons (1965-72) and subsequently coached Xavier for six. College basketball was not nearly so big a deal back then, but UC and Xavier have never been a mutual admiration society.

        “If Pitino goes to Louisville, it will add some spice to that rivalry,” Baker said. “It can't get too much hotter, but I really think it will be a little more heated than it has been.”

        Kentucky-Louisville is one of college basketball's best rivalries, and the coach who dares to work both sides of the street is bound to create some animosity. Pitino understands this. In assessing Louisville's offer, he says he has seriously considered the potential fallout in Wildcat Country.

        “I would say 15-20 percent of the Kentucky fans are not going to like it,” Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I would say 10 percent of the Louisville fans are not going to like it ... It's difficult for me to think about coaching UofL after coaching UK, but it's a great university with a great basketball tradition, and I love the state.”

Cardinals revival

        Were it not for his tenure in Lexington, Pitino could hardly expect to find a more perfect union. Louisville twice won NCAA championships during the Denny Crum era — in 1980 and 1986 — and it retains a rabid following and a national profile. A coach with Pitino's credentials and energy ought to be able to expand Louisville's eroded recruiting base and restore the Cardinals to their accustomed prominence.

        That's Tom Jurich's take on it, anyway.

        The Louisville athletic director is so smitten with Pitino that his search for Crum's successor has included only one candidate. Jurich already has outlined a compensation package worth in excess of $1 million per year and will try to close the deal with Pitino this weekend in Florida.

        Louisville administrators are gearing up for the possibility of a press conference as early as Monday. Pitino is scheduled to work Tuesday's NCAA Tournament play-in game for CBS, but his television career could be short-lived if it conflicts with recruiting.

        The deal sure looks as if it's going to go down.

        Imagine that.

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