In 2001 I heard rumors that Rick Pitino would likely be the coach to replace Denny Crum. Ironically, it was said that Pitino was choosing between Michigan and Louisville. It was also said that ultimately he chose Louisville because Michigan was a football school and he didn’t want to play second fiddle to any other sport. Of course all of these ” somebody said” things were all rumors but I believed all of them. I judged Rick right off the bat. I know that’s not fair but I fell victim to the media perception of his larger than life ego and his all about me attitude.
From day one I said Rick was a great coach but his New York ego was too big for Louisville. That being said I still wanted him as our coach. The day he was to be introduced as the new head basketball coach at the University of Louisville, I watched as the local news helicopters followed the vehicle he was riding in drive across the bridge into town. My first thought was ” Here we go with the “all about me stuff.” All I could think that he was going to make Louisville basketball all about him and not all about Louisville.
You have to understand that I am a huge Denny Crum fan. He was, and still is, the only coach I trust to draw up a game winning play. In March of 1986 I was in elementary school and I was supposed to be in bed. I snuck out of my room and down the steps as far as I could without being caught. I was far enough down the steps to see the television in our family room. I just had to see the final minutes of the NCAA championship game. When the Cards won I let out a cheer and a clap of the hands that gave me away. I was sent back to my room but I slept well and with a huge smile on my face. That moment just solidified my love for Denny.
But I am a realist and I knew that in the late 90’s it was time for some new blood. I didn’t want to see him go and I felt with two national championships, six final fours, three times being named national coach of the year (’80,’83,’86), and being a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee (’94), he had earned the right to leave on his own terms. My heart was torn. I loved coach but I love the program too. Sometimes the easy decision isn’t always the best decision. It would have been easy to just keep Denny. Not only was it hard to see him go but it seemed like an insult to replace him with a former UK coach.
I know that still to this day there are people who think you must choose between Rick and Denny. I know people who gave up their season tickets when Rick became coach. To me, the fact that Rick had previously coached at Kentucky didn’t matter at all. Mainly because he had been so successful and proved he was a great college coach. Honestly though, I think the fact that he left UK and coached the Boston Celtics from ’97-’01, made it easier on us all. More people would have been outraged if he came straight from UK. When the University decided to offer Denny a permanent position at Louisville, it seemed to help ease the pain. When Denny accepted the position he proved his loyalty and I believe that display of loyalty, over time, helped Rick become the coach he is today. I personally believe that in the early years Rick was so worried about his legacy, his records and what others thought about him he lost focus on putting the players and Louisville first.
That all slowly changed starting with Francisco Garcia in his 2004-2005 year. Rick seemed to really care about him as a person and his future. It didn’t appear that Rick was just using him so he could make himself look better as a coach. That continued with guys like Larry O’Bannon and Preston Knowles. He took Gorgui Dieng under his wing and taught him everything he knew because Gorgui wanted to go to the NBA and earn enough money to build a hospital in his homeland. I think the two players that made his transformation complete were Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. Not only did he care about them as people he enjoyed being with them. They made the game fun for him again. I believe they added another ten years to his coaching life. Coincidentally on March 1, 2012 Louisville released the Louisville First, Cards Forever slogan. It was Ricks idea for the Louisville first part of the slogan. At that point it became clear to me that Denny’s loyalty had finally gotten through to Rick and Rick was all in on Louisville. This would be his last coaching job.
Rick, Like Denny, had become a Louisville man and was more like a father figure to his players. They both molded young men into the men they are today. Just ask any of their former players and they will tell you it’s true. Ask Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. They are the all Louisville because of Rick.
This whole post is because of Steven Rummage confessing his love for Rick Pitino to Marques Maybin, and all their listeners, on The Cardinal Sports Zone radio show that airs every Saturday on 93.9 The Ville at 10am. While I don’t love Rick as much as Steven, I have grown to like him a lot more but nobody can ever be Cool Hand Luke. Louisville fans also need to realize that one day Rick will retire and a new coach will be brought in. Our expectations of the new coach may be way too high. We are spoiled after having only two coaches since 1971 and both being elected into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Rick and Denny are both great and we should never pit one vs the other. We can love them both!
As Always, GO CARDS!