Friday, March 16, 2001

Some Big Blue fans seeing red over Pitino

They don't want former UK coach to take Louisville job

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        UNIONDALE, N.Y. — University of Kentucky student Kevin Stevenson has pined long for former UK coach Rick Pitino to return to the Bluegrass State. But now Mr. Pitino has fans such as Mr. Stevenson learning to be careful what they wish for.

        Mr. Pitino, who led the Wildcats' storied program from one of its lowest periods to a national championship in 1996, is considering the head coaching job at UK's cross-state rival the University of Louisville.

        “I'm a big fan of Pitino,” said Mr. Stevenson, a 20-year-old junior from Henderson, Ky., who plays trombone in the UK band. “I like Pitino over Tubby. Tubby's a good coach. ... but I wouldn't mind it at all if Tubby would go and Pitino could come back here.”

        UK fans continue to have an affinity for Mr. Pitino, the charismatic Easterner who took over as the Wildcats head coach in 1989, when the school was under NCAA probation for recruiting violations.

        Earlier this year, Mr. Pitino resigned as coach of the NBA's Boston Celtics. He had left Kentucky to coach the Celtics after UK's 1996 NCAA championship season. He was replaced at Kentucky by Mr. Smith, who also won a title and has UK in the second round of the NCAA tournament after Thursday's win over Holy Cross.

        Mr. Pitino said he could make his decision on the U of L job by Monday. There has been a nasty reaction by some of the Wildcat faithful.

        Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said last week that negative comments by some UK fans could influence Mr. Pitino not to take the job, left open by the recent resignation of Denny Crum.

        For many fans following the Big Blue, seeing Mr. Pitino coaching rival Louisville would be hard to take.

        “It's going to be difficult,” said Bill Mattingly, 40, a health-care worker from near Bardstown in Nelson County, “especially with the rivalry and all. But I'm a Rick Pitino fan, so I wish him the best.”

        Some Wildcat followers just want Mr. Pitino back in Kentucky.

        Ned and Lil Kazee, UK fans from Saylersville in the Eastern Kentucky mountains, were decked out in blue-and-white Wildcat hats and sweat shirts as they walked through the lobby of the Marriott Hotel on Long Island.

        The couple, who plan to follow UK as long as the team stays alive in the tournament, said they would welcome Mr. Pitino back to the state — even if he were coaching UK's biggest rival.

        “We're for it,” Mr. Kazee said. “We think it's good for Kentucky; it's good for both schools.”

        “It's a love-hate relationship,” Mrs. Kazee said. “Because we love Pitino, and we hated that he left UK. However, we have a good coach. We can't remove him.”

        UK president Dr. Charles Wethington said almost everyone he encounters on campus or in Lexington has an opinion about Mr. Pitino.

        “There are all kinds of opinions. People are interested in the basketball coaches” at both schools, he said.

        “Rick is going to make the decision that he thinks is best for him, and I wish him well,” Dr. Wethington said before the start of Thursday's game. “That's a University of Louisville decision, not a University of Kentucky decision.”

        UK radio announcer Sam Bowie, the towering 7-footer who was a UK basketball star in the early 1980s, said he understands the “mixed reviews” of some Kentucky fans if Mr. Pitino takes the Louisville job.

        “But I'm very excited about the possibility of Rick going to Louisville,” Mr. Bowie said. “The commonwealth should be elated that there (are) going to be two programs of that magnitude within our state.

        “I know a lot of people will say "How dare Rick do that!'” he said. “But I don't agree with that. He shouldn't have to answer to those critics.

        “There is a vacancy there, he's the best man available for a job right now ... and as long as Rick is not playing against Kentucky, I'll root for him.”

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