Thursday, March 22, 2001

Pitino throws in with Cards

Familiar task awaits coach at Louisville

The Associated Press

Rick Pitino, the red Baron.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino became Louisville's basketball coach Wednesday, returning to the state where he won a national championship in 1996.

        Several hundred fans, city officials and past and current players gathered for a pep rally where the former Kentucky coach was introduced.

        “I know all of you were not fond of me when I was Kentucky's coach, and I'll make no bones about it — I'll always love UK and my players,” Pitino said. “Now it's my time to lead the Cardinals back to prominence.”

        Pitino, 48, resigned as coach of the Boston Celtics in January after 3 1/2 disappointing seasons.

        His hiring at Louisville follows a bold, aggressive courtship by athletic director Tom Jurich, who acted as a one-man search committee.

  Hear Pitino's comments from the press conference and read the Courier-Journal's comprehensive coverage.
        “It's been the year from hell, but I see heaven on the horizon,” Jurich said.

        Pitino has not signed a contract, but Jurich said he has agreed to a six-year deal worth about $1 million a year.

        Pitino, who was courted by Michigan and other schools, said his wife, Joanne, helped persuade him to take the job. He said he almost decided to take the Michigan job Wednesday.

        “She said: "I think you love the state of Kentucky; you love the people you met at U of L. I think you should go back to the place you love,'” Pitino said.

        Pitino replaces Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, who retired after months of strained relations with Jurich. Crum, 64, who led Louisville to NCAA championships in 1980 and '86, accepted a $7 million buyout.

        When Pitino expressed interest, some Kentucky fans said they were angry Pitino would even consider coaching the Wildcats' rival.

        “One game a year, we'll get it on,” Pitino said. “Outside of that, I'll always root for them.”

        The season before Pitino came to Kentucky, it went 13-19 and was hit with NCAA probation. Louisville is in similar disarray.

        The Cardinals finished this season 12-19. Louisville is 62-62 since reaching the NCAA regional finals in 1997 and was put on probation twice in the 1990s.

        “It (success) doesn't happen with a coach arriving, it happens by recruiting good student-athletes, it happens by improving the current players,” Pitino said.

        “Tom said the current players know what's in store for them. No, they don't. They have no concept of what's in store.”

        It took Pitino three seasons to turn things around in Lexington. Kentucky went 14-14 in his first season and 22-6 in his second.

        In his third, the Wildcats went 29-7, losing to Duke in the memorable 1992 East Regional final.

        Kentucky reached the Final Four the following season and went 124-19 over the next four, winning the school's sixth national title in 1996. The Wildcats reached the title game in 1997, losing to Arizona, before Pitino accepted a 10-year, $50 million contract to coach the Celtics.

        Pitino turned the Wildcats over to Tubby Smith, a former assistant. Smith congratulated Louisville from Philadelphia, where Kentucky is preparing to play Southern California on Thursday in the East Regional semifinals.

        “They're getting one of the great coaches in basketball,” Smith said. “I'll welcome him back.”

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