In an interview late Wednesday night conducted with college basketball writer Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com on his SiriusXM radio show, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino discussed the hype surrounding the upcoming season, his son Richard and his new job at Florida International, and even reciprocated the praise Kentucky coach John Calipari gave him by talking about what a great recruiter and coach of young kids he is. Find that last part shocking? As disturbing as it is to see the two rival coaches who had such an infamous war of words last sesaon now exchanging compliments, the real highlight of the interview came later. The coach, whose current contract runs through 2017, said he has changed his tune recently and would like to sign an extension that would allow him to coach until his health will allow (please do yourself a favor and read the pathetic UK fan comments on that tweet). This is definitely a change from what many expected only a few years ago. Recruiting was not going great (he had been pickpocketed by Calipari for Marquis Teague), Calipari was stealing much of Pitino’s thunder, his very public extortion scandal had humiliated him and the program, and his disappointing/forgettable 2009 season followed by him saying 2010 was going to be a “bridge year” did not exactly give fans confidence for the future. There were whispers that the game had passed him by, and retirement did not seem very far fetched. Then he landed a top 5 recruiting class headlined by McDonald’s All-Americans Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan, took his 2011-12 team to a Final Four, and is a heavy favorite for the national championship this coming season. My, how things change.
Before going any further, it is important to note that this is not at all official. This is something Pitino merely mentioned to Goodman, who then reported it to fans via Twitter. Nothing has been signed, nothing has been agreed upon. It could mean something and it could mean nothing. Athletic director Tom Jurich would certainly be behind Pitino signing an extension. He has been a consistent backer of Pitino through the best of times and through the darkest of times. When fans were calling for Pitino’s head, he would come out and say the coach had a job as long as he wanted. If Pitino mentioned retirement, Jurich would have none of it. He recently said as much to Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports. He said that Pitino now has more energy than most 35-year olds and would actually like to reward him with a 5-year extension. That would make Pitino the head coach until 2022 when he would be turning 70 years old. That is coming a long way from last December, when the coach said he would retire after his contract was up. Or did he? While he did say that he would only coach until his contract was up, no one really asked a follow up question. They just all assumed he meant he was retiring. At the time, maybe that was a feasible conclusion to jump to. After all, up until that point, the 2011-12 season was not living up to the preseason hype it received. The previous two seasons ended in first round tournament losses and recruiting was less than dynamic. The extension that Jurich awarded Pitino in 2010 could be arguably seen as premature and even undeserved after the way the team had been looking and especially after the embarrassment he caused the program with the extortion case. Maybe those in attendance when Pitino said he would coach only through the end of the contract had trouble believing he would even last THAT long. Then again, maybe they should have pushed for more clarification.
The world we live in is an oven society. When a coach or team is hot, they are on top of the world. When they are not…well…things are not so peachy. The idea of extending Pitino until he is 70 will likely draw mixed reactions from Louisville fans. There are those who would celebrate it, as he is coming off a Final Four, entering a season where the team is a national championship favorite, and is bringing in a very impressive 2013 recruiting class. Then there are those who cannot shake the dark days from their mind and think the idea of an extension after one great season and only what may be another is unneccessary. Maybe they will pine for a younger coach like Billy Donovan, Shaka Smart, Anthony Grant or whatever other hot name will surface. If the season goes like it should go, fans will likely be fine and supportive of the notion. If the team underachieves, then the fans will rip this idea to shreds. It is the nature of the beast.
So where did this sudden change of heart Pitino had come from? Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com suggests it may be just coach-speak, and he is just countering coaches who are using his retirement as a negative recruiting tactic against Louisville. More likely, though, it is the simple reason he is simply happier coaching than he has been in some time. It is not so much the past and potential win-loss records that are driving this decision, but the fact that he is recruiting players that he genuinely enjoys coaching and genuinely want to learn and do things the way he would like them to be done. From 2007-2010, recruiting times were rough. There was little star power in the 2007, 2009, and 2010 classes, and his 2008 blockbuster class that included 5-star big men Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings was not exactly living up to the hype. It was not that either were bad players (they were, in fact, quite valuable), but neither really developed under Pitino the way he had noped nor fully embraced his coaching philosophy. Samuels was a solid scorer, but always looked genuinely unhappy on the defensive side of the ball, did not run the court well at times, and was outworked on the glass more than a player his size should be. Jennings, on the other hand, never developed an offensive skill set that could match his athleticism, and he would get lost at times on both sides of the ball. Pitino was also had what he called a very high maintenance team to deal with that included players like Jerry Smith, Earl Clark, Terrence Williams, and Edgar Sosa. Maybe his thoughts of retirement were based on a thought in the back of his head that he could not connect with or deal with the new generation of college players.
Now, however, that thought process, if it even existed, is long gone. He has once again found his niche in the game and understands the type of player he needs. Perhaps seeing just how well a player like Gorgui Dieng has developed under his tutelage reaffirmed his faith in his abilities and reminded him there are still kids out there willing to learn. He is clearly very happy with this team and thoroughly enjoys coaching them. Now that he knows what kind of recruits will best adapt to his style of coaching, things are going much smoother on the recruiting trail. He has an outstanding class coming in for 2013 that will include SG Anton Gill, PF Akoy Agau, PG Terry Rozier, PG Chris Jones, and C Mangok Mathiang (on the team now, but likely to redshirt). Is it going to be as good as the UK recruiting class, which will likely include half of the top 10 players in the class? No, but it does not need to be. The way Pitino is recruiting, he will not need to have a freshman be the best player on the team right away to win. He will have experienced veterans who understand and thrive in the system where a freshman can learn. The recruits he is targeting he is making sure are willing and anxious to learn. If he continues to land these types of talents, Louisville will continue to be a competitive top 5 team for years to come.
Again, this is all extremely speculative and nothing is set in stone. The only thing that is a fact right now is that Pitino is more excited about coaching than he has been in years. This is arguably the most excited he has been since he has it Louisville and the future only appears to be getting brighter. A lot will depend on what happens this year, but if things go as planned, it should surprise no one that he wants to stay as long as his health permits him (go easy, Russ), nor should it give fans anything but confidence in the future.
To listen to Pitino’s interview with Goodman, here is the link.