NCAA BK

Pitino putting together legend's legacy

Reid Forgrave on the championship game storylines.
Reid Forgrave on the championship game storylines.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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ATLANTA

This is what’s called a pretty darned good 36 hours.

On Friday morning, Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s son Richard was introduced as the new coach at the University of Minnesota, at 30 becoming the youngest head coach in the Big Ten. An hour or so later, reports broke that the Louisville coach would be part of the 2013 class of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

The next day, as Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals prepared to tip off for their coach’s seventh Final Four, a horse Pitino co-owns, Goldencents, won the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby and qualified for the Kentucky Derby next month — which happens to take place in Pitino’s hometown of Louisville. The greatest 36-hour streak in sports ended Saturday night when Louisville, shorthanded without the injured Kevin Ware and down 12 in the second half to upstart Wichita State, rode its coach’s courtside confidence to a furious comeback victory built on Pitino’s signature full-court press.

As Pitino attempts on Monday night against Michigan to become the first coach in college basketball history to win a national championship at two schools, there’s no better time to contemplate what it is about Pitino that makes him such a great coach — and where his legacy measures up in the pantheon of coaching.

Here’s a simple way to think about Pitino’s legacy: If he hadn’t spent six years as an NBA head coach, the 60-year-old easily could be approaching the magical 900-win plateau and be talked about as one of the greatest coaches alive — if not the hands-down greatest, with apologies to Coach K.

As it stands, with 663 wins as a college coach and a national championship in 1996, Pitino arguably is already in that class. He was one of the first to fully embrace the adoption of the 3-point line, during his Final Four run at Providence in 1987, and one of the experimenters who turned the full-court press into an art form. And he’s had legendary success at two of college basketball’s elites, Kentucky and now Louisville, where he has built winners since 2001.

“I’m going to be honest with you: I haven’t thought about it for one second until you mentioned it,” Pitino said Sunday in response to a question about his legacy. “It’s really not that significant to me. We have built a brand on Louisville first. Everything we do is about the team, about the family. I’d be a total hypocrite if I said it’s really important. It really is not important. I want to win because I’m a part of this team. That’s it. Those of us in team sports always think that way.”

That mentality, of course, is what turns this brilliant X’s-and-O’s man into an equally brilliant leader of young men.

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“A guy like Russ Smith in the beginning, when he first came in, never thought that way,” Pitino continued. “It was about points. It was about scoring. Now Russ Smith has gone full cycle; it’s all about the team.”

OK, fine. It’s a big fat sports cliché: It’s not about me, it’s about the team. When most players say that, the first instinct is to roll your eyes and wonder when this player turned into such a robot. But Pitino talking about the importance of team is something different. As Kevin Ware’s horrific injury showed the nation, what Pitino has done with this Louisville team is foster a sense of camaraderie that might be the most impressive in college sports.

Though the Cardinals returned home that night, Pitino and his son, who recruited Ware when he was a Louisville assistant, stayed in Indianapolis to be with the sophomore guard.

“I really wouldn’t say Kevin’s injury brought us together as a family,” freshman forward Montrezl Harrell said Sunday. “What y’all seen might have seemed to bring us together as a family, because y’all aren’t really around us all the time. But it didn’t bring us together as a family. We was already like this before the injury. Y’all just haven’t got a chance to happen to see it.”

Ware’s injury and the team’s inspired response pulled back the curtain on the main intangible that makes Pitino an all-time great coach, and why Louisville is winning without lottery-pick talent.

Devising a devastating full-court press on the whiteboard is one thing, but having players riffing off each other on the court in such a complex defensive system takes a coach who knows how to get every player to buy into every other player.

It’s a sense of camaraderie that’s been fostered with this group since summer, when Pitino worked on these guys’ conditioning — the essential ingredient for being able to run a full-game press — with grueling, repeated three-minute sprinting drills that made plenty of players vomit.

“You do your best, and he says, ‘Naw, that’s not enough,’ ” Senegalese center Gorgui Dieng said Sunday. “He always tries to find room for perfection. That’s how he is, and that’s what makes him special.”

“(But) he’s just like a dad to me,” Dieng continued. “He’s not only teaching me basketball. He’s teaching me life. Seriously… When I had a bad game, he come talk to me, and he said, ‘Son, people don’t just judge you on one game. Yesterday, I know that wasn’t your ‘A’ game, but people won’t just judge you on one game. People know what you can do. You need to move on to the next game.’ ”

In the pro game, the players are the stars, but in the college game it’s all about the team. And that’s why Pitino might be the single brightest star in all of college basketball.

''If I had one regret in life, it wouldn't be what you think,'' Pitino said. ''It's that I wasn't more humble at an earlier age.''

Louisville has won 30 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time. Its 34 wins this season are a school record, and its 15-game winning streak is its longest in 10 years. On Monday, Pitino might turn the greatest 36-hour streak in sports into the greatest four-day streak in sports history by entering the Hall and winning his second title (Louisville is an early 4 1/2-point favorite). If he does, it’ll be a testament to a man who, more than being a basketball genius, is a genius at encouraging a disparate group of young men to work together, which is what college basketball is all about.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Louisville, Russ Smith

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