Pitino Caps Week for the Ages By Becoming First Coach to Lead Two Schools to NCAA Championships


ATLANTA
— It’s entirely possible that no coach will ever replicate the week that Rick Pitino completed at 11:46 EST Monday night here in the Georgia Dome.

With Louisville’s 82-76 victory over Michigan in the national championship game before a crowd of 74,346, the newly minted Naismith Hall of Fame capped a historic day by becoming the first man ever to lead two different schools to an NCAA title.

The New York City native coached a loaded Kentucky team to the NCAA championship in 1996, and tonight guided Louisville to its first title since 1986 and third overall.

“I know how much this means to him,” Louisville senior floor general Peyton Siva said of Pitino after scoring 14  of his 18 points in the second half to go with six rebounds, five assists and four steals in his final collegiate game. 

“He has to be the luckiest person in the world right now. He has a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Richard [Pitino] just got the job in Minnesota. It’s just amazing.”

“Oh man, if you win a title at both at Kentucky and Louisville, wow,” Brooklyn native Russ Smith said on Sunday, one day before he struggled through a 3-for-16 shooting performance in the championship game.

“It just makes you think he’s a great coach and he will forever be remembered in Kentucky on both sides. I don’t think nobody in the state would hate him. He won a title for Kentucky, he won a title at Louisville so everybody should love him.”

Now Pitino must get a tattoo to commemorate the achievement.

“About 12-13 games ago, all of these guys, when they say hello they get a tattoo,” Pitino said. “They said if you win the National Championship coach, you are getting a tattoo. I said hell yeah, I am getting a tattoo.”

“I’m going to hold him to that tattoo he gonna be getting soon,” Kevin Ware said courtside.

Pitino praised sophomore forward Chane Behanan’s “guts” after he played like a man down low to the tune of 15 points and 13 rebounds and junior Luke Hancock had 16 of his 22 in the first half –hitting four straight 3-pointers — to keep the Cardinals close when Michigan freshman Spike Albrecht threatened to steal the show. Hancock was the first non-starter to win the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, won 16 straight games to close the season.

Ironically, Pitino nearly became the Michigan coach in 2001, but opted for the Louisville gig instead because his wife, Joanne, wanted to return to Kentucky.

Consider the magnitude of Pitino’s history-making week.

On top of winning a national championship and being announced into the 2013 Naismith Hall of Fame class, his son, Richard Pitino, got the head coaching job at Minnesota and his horse, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby.

And oh by the way, Pitino will make a total of $6.1 million for winning the title, according to Darren Rovell of ESPN.

“He needs to play the lottery,” Hancock said. “I mean, he doesn’t need any more money, but he needs to play the lottery.”

The only man to take three different programs to the Final Four started his blockbuster Monday in a ballroom at the Marriott Marquis Hotel where he was officially named part of the Hall of Fame class that included two former Knicks in Bernard King and Richie Guerin, as well as Gary Payton, Dawn Staley, Jerry Tarkanian, Guy Lewis and others.

King was there near the beginning of Pitino’s career when he served as a Knicks assistant in the mid-80s.

“He was a very young coach but I saw him at that time he was an extremely hard worker,” King recalled. “He knew the game, he understood the game.”

King added: “I enjoyed playing for him and I hope he wins tonight. I’m rooting for Louisville and to think about what he’s done and the impact that he’s had on the game of basketball at the professional level and the collegiate level is just mind-boggling.

“So I’m really happy that the two of us, along with the other inductees, are going in together.”

On Wednesday, Pitino got two huge pieces of good news. At the same time.

The text from Richard, “Go Gophers, I got the job,” came in at the exact same time the elder Pitino received his Hall call.

“When I hung up, I was looking around for lightning to hit me because I thought it was going to end, it was such an unbelievable moment,” Pitino said.

“It really legitimately happened at the exact time,” Richard added. “We didn’t know how to celebrate. I was so proud of him, he was so happy for me, so it was a really special moment.”

Richard was proudly taking pictures of his father during the Hall of Fame announcement, and Jim Nantz asked him to stand up and be recognized.

“Oh, it would be unbelievable, it’s almost a dream come true to get announced into the Hall of Fame and then an opportunity to win a national championship is something extremely special,” Richard Pitino said of his father.

“He’s one of the best of all time.”

Pitino is now at 664 career victories, the exact same number as legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

As I wrote in this column, Pitino could theoretically have about 850 wins and a couple  more NCAA championships had he not spent eight seasons in the NBA.

He could still wind up with more than 1,000 and be No. 1 all-time when all is said and done.

And with a contract that runs another nine years, he doesn’t have any plans to walk off into the sunset with his second NCAA championship.

“I really hadn’t thought about that until all these people are saying, ‘What a way to do it,'” Pitino said.

“I have so many cherished moments from this Final Four, moments of a lifetime to be so fortunate and so lucky. I’m excited to be in the game, not to walk away from the game.”

Tonight he walked away with a history-making national championship.

Photo: New York Times

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