Pitino Hired as Louisville Coach

Thursday, March 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rick Pitino's love for the state of Kentucky outweighed the opinions of a few bitter fans.

Pitino became the University of Louisville's coach on Wednesday, five years after he led Kentucky to its sixth national championship.

``Now it's my time to lead the Cardinals back to prominence,'' Pitino told several hundred Louisville fans, city leaders and past and present players at a pep rally where he was introduced.

About six hours earlier, Pitino was ready to turn down Louisville and fill Michigan's coaching vacancy. His wife, Joanne, talked him out of it.

``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 said his biggest reservation about accepting the Louisville job was the backlash from UK fans who felt insulted that he would even consider coaching the Wildcats' archrival.

Pitino said Wednesday that UK fans should respect his decision.

``When I took over (Kentucky), everyone was embarrassed,'' Pitino said. ``It had to be built back up with integrity. When I left, it was not only built up, but it was a model program.

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

Pitino resigned as coach and president 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. Jurich said two weeks ago that Pitino was his only candidate for the job.

``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's agreed to a six-year deal, worth about $1 million per year. Pitino said money was not a factor in his decision.

``I am back in the state that I love, coaching at a great university that hasn't had an opening in 30 years,'' Pitino said. ``I'm totally pumped up. I can't wait to get started.''

Pitino replaces Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, who retired after months of strained relations with Jurich. The 64-year-old Crum, who led Louisville to NCAA championships in 1980 and '86, had two seasons left on his contract, but accepted a $7 million buyout.

Speculation began immediately that Pitino was Jurich's top choice, and even former Louisville players voiced support.

``This was the guy we had to have,'' Jurich said. ``There was no other answer to fixing this program.''

Jurich flew to Pitino's Miami home on March 9 and persuaded him to visit the Louisville campus last week.

Pitino left impressed, but said he wanted to consult his family before making a decision. He worked the NCAA Midwest Regional in Dayton, Ohio, as an analyst for CBS before flying to Boston to meet his family Sunday night.

Pitino, 48, took the Celtics' job in 1997 after eight seasons at Kentucky that solidified his reputation as a master rebuilder. He previously turned around mediocre programs at Boston University and Providence, guiding both to the NCAA tournament. He also coached the New York Knicks from 1987-89.

The season before Pitino arrived at Kentucky, the team went 13-19 — its first losing record in 62 years — and was hit with NCAA probation. He inherits a Louisville program in similar disarray.

The Cardinals finished this season 12-19, capping the worst four-year run in Crum's 30 years. Louisville is 62-62 since reaching the NCAA regional finals in 1997 and was twice put on probation in the 1990s.

The school hopes Pitino can guide the Cardinals back to the national prominence they enjoyed in the 1980s.

``It doesn't happen with a coach arriving, it happens by recruiting good student-athletes, it happens by improving the current players,'' Pitino said. ``It's going to take some outstanding recruiting to turn things around. But it won't happen unless we turn around the players that are currently here. And that's what I fully intend to do.''

The current players can't wait to start practicing.

``Every one of us is excited,'' freshman guard Bryant Northern said. ``How many guys get to play for not one, but two national champion coaches in their lifetime? I get butterflies just thinking about it.''

It took Pitino three seasons to return Kentucky to prominence. The Wildcats 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 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.''