JIM LITKE: For Pitino, it's the best week ever
ATLANTA — Someday soon, Rick Pitino is going to have to explain to his grandkids how he got his first and only tattoo.
But before that, he’s going to tell them the story of how getting into the Hall of Fame might have been only the second best thing that happened to him on a serendipitous Monday in April.
Because barely 12 hours after Pitino became a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in sports, he did something no college basketball coach had ever done.
He won a second NCAA Division I championship as Louisville beat Michigan 82-76, a victory that made him the only coach to take two different schools to the top of the heap.
It came 17 years after Pitino’s 1996 title at Kentucky, and that squad was loaded with seven future NBA players. This team was less about pure talent and more about grit.
“Probably the 13 toughest guys I ever coached,” Pitino said afterward. “It’s always the players who put a coach in the Hall of Fame.”
The payback, Pitino revealed, is that he has to commemorate that toughness by getting a tattoo.
“They said, ‘If you win the national championship, coach, you are getting a tattoo.’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah,’” the 60 year-old coach laughed. “I’m getting a tattoo. I owe them.”
Frankly, deciding which of the events of the last week of his life to etch in ink won’t be easy. Pitino is on such a run, in fact, you’d be tempted to tell him to rush out and bet on a horse while he’s at it.
But hold that thought, because Pitino has already done that — and his horse won that race, too.
Just last Saturday, a thoroughbred Pitino owns by the name of Goldencents captured the Santa Anita Derby, one of the most important prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby. And just a few days before that, his son, Richard, moved into the top flight of his father’s profession, leaving Florida International to take over at Minnesota.
So when Pitino blinked beneath the confetti splashing down from the roof of the Georgia Dome and said, “I’ve had the greatest life,” there was a sense he wasn’t kidding.
This latest stretch, like almost everything else he’s accomplished, wasn’t about luck or great players. It was about hard work, an almost maniacal devotion to detail and Pitino’s ability to get kids to buy into a defensive system that runs opponents ragged. If you want to know how successful a salesman Pitino is, ask Kevin Ware. The sophomore guard was the first reserve off the Cardinals bench until he broke his leg in a freak injury during a tournament game a weekend ago.
“You would think we all came out of the same womb,” Ware said.
Ware’s absence shifted even more of the burden onto his teammates, made them play more minutes, but their commitment never wavered. Louisville’s constant-motion defense Monday night enabled the Cardinals to crawl back from 12 points down in the first half against the Wolverines, one of the best offensive teams in the game. But then, they’ve been doing that to everybody this season, closing deficits of 10 points or more an incredible seven times in all.
“It’s just amazing,” said Peyton Siva, a four-year player who was Pitino’s coach on the floor. “Kevin was playing such a big part. For him to go down and everyone to rally around him turned out to be a blessing.”
But only one of many in a week that Pitino will never forget. But just in case he does, well, there’s always going to be that tattoo to remind him.