NEW ORLEANS — Rick Pitino will dance like a fool to get a smile out of his granddaughter. Freshmen who were scared to utter a word around him are practically his BFFs now.
A changed man? At this Final Four, no doubt.
But not for the reasons most people assume.
“We live vicariously through these kids,” Pitino said Thursday. “I’m having the time of my life.”
Almost three years after an extortion case exposed the messy details of his private life, Pitino is on top of the coaching world again. Louisville is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2005 after what is undoubtedly one of the finest coaching jobs of Pitino’s career.
The fourth-seeded Cardinals (30-9) were riddled with injuries during the season, skidding into the Big East Tournament just two games over .500 in conference play, including four losses in their past six games. But the Cardinals ripped off four wins in as many days and haven’t cooled off yet. They play top-seeded Kentucky on Saturday night.
Think of the big names in college coaching, and Pitino was always near the top of the list. He was the first men’s coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, starting with that scrappy, undersized, 3-point shooting Providence team 25 years ago. He won an NCAA title with Kentucky in 1996.
And with his finely tailored suits and natty shoes, he gave the schlumpy look of college coaches a much-needed makeover.
All of which made his admission in 2009 that he’d had a sexual encounter with a woman who later tried to extort millions from him that much more shocking. The scandal transfixed the entire state of Kentucky for the better part of two years, and the tawdry details – Karen Cunagin Sypher claimed Pitino gave her money for an abortion, the coach said it was for health insurance, she later married Louisville’s equipment manager Tim Sypher – fueled talk that Pitino might step down.
“A lot of times the last two years I took a lot of grief from a lot of people saying a lot of things,” Pitino said. “And I never thought in my life I could turn the other cheek and just walk on. And I did. And some of the most ugly things I’ve heard, I just took it inside. And today, as I look back on it, I’m real proud that you could turn the other cheek.”
It would be easy for Pitino to play the sympathetic victim, but he won’t.
“I brought that about myself,” he said last week. “You learned to turn the cheek, move on.”
A few months shy of his 60th birthday, maybe Pitino’s simply mellowed.
“My freshman year, I said maybe four words to him,” said Kyle Kuric, a senior. “Now the freshmen, they have conversations with him; they’re showing him pictures. He really connects with the team in a better way, and we have a stronger bond because of it.”