LOUISVILLE, Ky. – People keep saying Rick Pitino looks old and tired.
If you did as much in the past 25 years as he has, you'd look that way, too.
In a peripatetic and melodramatic quarter-century, Pitino has been to six Final Fours, had five jobs, flirted with at least five other jobs, been a hero on three college campuses, written three books, taken two wildly divergent runs at coaching the pros, endured the sudden deaths of two brothers-in-law, grieved the loss of an infant son, coached the greatest second-half comeback in college history, lost the greatest game in college history, survived a scandalous extortion attempt and won one national title. (For now. Check back Monday to see if the last item on the list needs to be updated.)
He's been busy.
In the past 25 years, there might not be another prominent figure in American sports whose life story has gone through as many public plot twists – intentional and unintentional, self-inflicted and beyond his control – as Rick Pitino's. He is a walking Scorsese film.
Now he's traveled a frenetic full circle. Pitino's latest Final Four team returns to New Orleans, the site of his first Final Four visit in 1987.
In college basketball history, only one coach has a longer span than Pitino's 25 years between Final Four berths. That was Dean Smith, whose first trip to the ultimate destination was in 1967 and the last in '97. Smith, of course, was working from the same office the whole time at North Carolina, while Pitino has darted all over America, from one rebuilding project to another.
He has had four other Final Four teams in between Providence '87 and Louisville 2012 – three at Kentucky in the 1990s and one other with the Cardinals, seven years ago. But Pitino's full circle completes itself with two teams that have a lot in common.
The biggest commonality is this: Not many people expected to see them still playing on the season's last weekend.
[Related: Kentucky-Louisville no ordinary rivalry]
The '87 Providence Friars were a No. 6 NCAA tournament seed that finished tied for fourth in the Big East. These Louisville Cardinals are a No. 4 seed that finished seventh in the Big East. Those Friars lost that season to Tulsa. These Cardinals lost this season to Providence – by 31. There were no long-term pros with those Friars. There may be one or two with these Cardinals – but don't expect to see them drafted this year.
In other words, both teams overachieved dramatically to make it as far as they did. There have been a lot of coaches able to coax one modestly talented overachiever into the Final Four; how many have done it twice?
You could say Butler's Brad Stevens and probably make a good case – but the 2010 Bulldogs did have a lottery pick (Gordon Hayward) and another player who was an NBA draft pick the following year (Shelvin Mack). That was a legitimately talented team, even if nobody thought so when those players were being recruited.
And Stevens was working with pretty much the same nucleus two years in a row. Pitino built two separate Final Four overachievers, at two schools. The only others who have a claim to that are Lee Rose (Charlotte in 1977 and No. 8 seed Purdue in '80) and Hugh Durham (Florida State in 1972 and No. 4 seed Georgia in '84).
The big difference between Providence '87 and Louisville '12 is how they play. Those Friars could shoot the lights out, and they rode Pitino's ground-breaking 3-point strategy in the first season the shot was introduced to the college game. These Cardinals might be the worst-shooting team Pitino has had.
This is a defense-first team that in the latter stages of the season has augmented its standard zone with greater doses of man-to-man. Mostly, Louisville relies on challenging every shot, pass and dribble, then tries to get to the other end and score before the defense can set up and make life difficult for a group of scatter-shooters.
While the players on the two teams have different strengths and weaknesses, the people are similar.
"From a character standpoint, they're almost identical," Pitino said. "They're both great."
He also has seen the Final Four from the perspective of his Saturday adversary, John Calipari. Pitino's been there as the heavy favorite who absolutely had to win it all.
That was in 1996, when Pitino was at Kentucky and his semifinal opponent was none other than Calipari and the Massachusetts Minutemen. UMass had beaten Kentucky in November of that season and had a brilliant season of its own, losing just one game, but the Wildcats were still expected to win the title – especially after obliterating all comers the first four rounds.
Kentucky controlled the game that night in the Meadowlands and won 81-74, setting up a championship meeting with Syracuse. Pitino was so nervous he stayed up all night before the game, playing gin rummy with a friend.
"I couldn't sleep," he recalled Tuesday. "I couldn't go out for a walk because we were in New Jersey, and outside the hotel was the highway. There was a torrential downpour.
"We had to win it."
When the two abiding coaching enemies meet Saturday, the have-to-win-it pressure is with Calipari this time. Pitino knows it and likes it.
As he said after Louisville won the West Regional: "There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."
Common sense says Kentucky will handle the pressure and beat the Cardinals a second time this season. Talent tends to prevail in the latter stages of the NCAA tournament.
But after traveling one of the widest, most dizzying full circles in Final Four history, Rick Pitino will have his team ready. Maybe there's one more dramatic plot twist to come in a quarter-century full of them.
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- Rick Pitino