A few weeks ago I was sitting courtside for Louisville's throttling of Colorado State at Rupp Arena in Lexington during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, when the video board showed highlights of the hometown Wildcats celebrating their 1996 NCAA Championship.
The red-clad arena booed lustily until the video montage began showing the Kentucky coach – current Cardinal coach, Rick Pitino – imploring his troops onward to victory. You could sense the confusion that overcame the crowd. There was a smattering of cheers amidst a handful of boos, but mostly it was the silence of head-scratching. Louisville fans didn't know how to react to this particular sight of Pitino.
The Cardinal Nation will no longer face that conundrum. Pitino is their coach. Their championship-winning coach.
In a week that Hollywood screenwriters couldn't have dreamt up, Pitino capped a fantasy-like string of days by guiding Louisville to its first national title since 1986 with an 82-76 win over Michigan in Atlanta.
What kind of roll is Pitino on? Bill Gates doesn't have enough money to have purchased Pitino's week.
The longtime coach began Monday by being named as an inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and by midnight, the plaque engravers were cursing him for having to start over with their task.
In a span of two-plus hours, he wiped a year's worth of insecurity from the consciousness of Louisville fans, who witnessed “Big Blue” cutting down the nets last April.
While Pitino was rallying his team from 12 points down against Wichita State on Saturday (he did the same on Monday against the Wolverines), his thoroughbred, Goldencents, was charging to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, which procured the horse a coveted spot in next month's Kentucky Derby.
Oh yeah, just for good measure, Pitino's son, Richard, became a multi-millionaire when he was hired as the basketball coach at Minnesota recently.
If ever there was an example of age and wisdom correlating, one needs to look no further than Pitino.
Pitino has always shown a disdain for a lack of effort by his players, as well as very minimal acceptance of mental incompetence on the basketball court.
He had based his entire career on being a demanding, driving leader of young people, who never really seemed to enjoy himself, despite his achievements.
After all, this is a guy that coached at the University of Hawaii and quit.
As general manager of the Boston Celtics, Pitino drafted Chauncey Billups with the third overall pick (1997), yet got rid of the five-time All-Star after just 51 games (Billups is still playing – and starting – for the Los Angeles Clippers).
As the coach at Kentucky, he lorded over the most regal college basketball program in the land. He often referred to it as “Camelot.” But he sought out the challenge of the NBA, where coaching careers, and thus happiness, often go to die. And his did.
But give Pitino credit, he changed.
For decades, Pitino should've served as Exhibit A for a person never “messing with happy.” But a few years ago, about the same time that he was embroiled in a sex scandal despite being married since 1976, Pitino decided to spend the remainder of his career enjoying himself, his players, his family, and his moments.
And there was Pitino on Monday night, sticking with troubled (on the court) Cardinal guard Russ Smith through thin and even thinner moments of erratic shot taking and asinine decision making.
Following the buzzer, Pitino bounced from person to person to person to person, endlessly hugging each one. He was in a place that a younger Rick Pitino would have never truly enjoyed. He was simply looking for hugs, not the next great opportunity.
Pitino had found true happiness amidst the fireworks and confetti and the 60-year-old isn't going to mess with that any more.