A week to remember
Amazing seven days ends with second national title for Pitino
NOTE: Louisville’s participation in the 2013 Division I men’s basketball championship was later vacated by the Committee on Infractions.
ATLANTA -– Rick Pitino stood with his hands folded in front of him at his waist as the clock ticked down on the final warmup of the 2012-13 season. The Louisville head coach had been through 902 of them in his 28 years of coaching. But this one was different.
Pitino gazed up to the 300-level of the Georgia Dome taking it all in as the clock wound to zero. The national title game-record crowd of 74,326 were all in their seats ready for a show. And the look on Pitino’s face -– not smug, but confident -– showed he knew Louisville was on its way to its first national title since 1986.
I dare you to find one person in the world who had a better week than Pitino. The crazy part is, Monday night’s victory against Michigan was just icing on the proverbial cake. This week had everything –- starting from one of the worst moments he’s experienced as a coach, and ending with his second national championship.
It was only eight days ago that Kevin Ware suffered one of the most gruesome sports injuries anyone had ever seen right in front of Pitino's feet. He had to wipe away the tears from his eyes as Ware was wheeled off the court by paramedics. But Pitino rallied his team past Duke -- and on to Atlanta for the Final Four.
Wednesday, two life events came together when he received a call from the Naismith Hall of Fame, letting him know that he was part of the 2013 class of inductees. His son Richard also was trying to tell him about his new gig.
"When I got the call, I was trying to call my wife over so she could hear it, and I'm trying to put it on speaker phone, and a text keeps beeping as I'm getting this special call," Pitino said. "I saw the text. 'Go Gophers. I got the job.'"
All of that was before the Final Four even began.
When it came to the basketball part of the weekend, Saturday’s semifinal win against Wichita State didn’t disappoint. A double-digit comeback in the second half finished at about the same time as a horse he co-owns won the Santa Anita Derby. Goldensense will now run in the Kentucky Derby after coming from behind to win.
What did you accomplish on Saturday? Not as much as Pitino did. But even that paled in comparison to Monday.
In the morning, there was the ceremony for the 2013 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class. Pitino was one of seven inductees this year.
“It was a welcome distraction,” Pitino said. ''You take it in stride. I try not to ever get too low. I fight adversity as hard as I can fight it, not get too low. When good things happen, I don't really embrace it. I just say it's a lucky day.''
Oh yeah, there was still a national championship game to coach. And a tough Michigan club to prepare for. He’s softened in his older age. Especially off the court.
''You always hear about him being hard on his players but, to me, he's a soft guy,'' Peyton Siva said. ''He's still tough on us, but he's more enjoyable off the court. He seems more relaxed. He seems to have more fun with things. ... On the court he's the most focused guy ever, but off the court he's the most loveable guy ever.''
He was never tougher on his guys than during the final minutes of Monday’s game. Despite a deafening noise from the thousands in attendance, Pitino’s voice could be heard shouting, pleading with his players to get stops.
He would gesture with his hands while his team was on the other end of the floor as if he was a famous artist. They needed all of it, after once again falling behind by double-digits.
It all worked.
As the clock wound down to two seconds and a desperate Trey Burke heaved a three that fell short, Pitino could finally exhale.
Louisville 82, Michigan 76.
He turned around and grabbed all of his assistants in a bear hug. Pitino could finally smile. He had his second national championship and first since 1996. That’s a long 17 years to wait, but he became the first coach to win a national title at two different schools.
“I’ve had so many great players through the years on so many great teams,” Pitino said. “I’ve always said it’s the players that make the coach. Four years ago we built a brand. I felt if you stay at a school, you have to change your brand. Our school was going to be Louisville first. Everything we do is for our team, university and city, not for ourselves. That brand is the reason we won tonight.”
As he climbed the ladder and cut a couple of pieces nylon off the hoop, he waved to the fans that remained with scissors in hand. One of those was Denny Crum, Louisville’s head coach the last time the Cards hoisted a national title trophy in 27 years.
It’s a week where the stars aligned for Pitino and his Louisville team. The tournament’s top-seed showed exactly why they were named that on Selection Sunday. And for Pitino, the wait was over.
Yes, Pitino’s week will be tough to top or even continue, for that matter. But the hall of famer has a plan for when he gets back to Louisville. A trip to the tattoo parlor.
“If these guys say hello to each other they get a tattoo,” Pitino said. “So about 12 or 13 games ago they said to me ‘Hey coach, if we win the national championship will you get a tattoo?’ Hell yes, I’m getting a tattoo.”
Now, he just needs this run to continue through Churchill Downs on May 4.