Site of Louisville’s after-party had special meaning to Rick Pitino

PHOENIX — Only two blocks from the main entrance of the U.S. Airways Center stands a sports bar with a name that gives Rick Pitino chills.

It's called "Coach & Willie's," and it's where the Louisville coach chose to host an after-party Saturday night following the Cardinals' 72-68 come-from-behind victory over Florida to advance to the Final Four.

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The significance of the downtown Phoenix bar's name to Pitino stems from one of the great tragedies of his life. Pitino's best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, whom the coach affectionately called Willie, died in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The existence of the bar first came to Pitino's attention Friday afternoon when a mutual friend of him and Minardi stumbled upon it and called to alert the coach. A shocked Pitino had the team bus stop at the bar after Friday's practice so he could take pictures to send to friends and family and inquire about having a postgame celebration on the bar's upstairs balcony if the Cardinals won the following day.

"It was so incredible," Pitino said Saturday in his postgame news conference. "We're going into that bar tonight and I know my wife, myself and children, will cry a little bit looking at the name Willie, but it eases the pain when you have your family together at times."

The actual meaning of the name "Coach & Willie's," of course, has nothing to do with Pitino and Minardi. Instead, the bar's namesakes are the fathers of co-owners Mark Simonek and Eric Stoltz.

Hal Simonek is a retired wrestling coach who worked for 38 years at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif. And Willie Stoltz was such a devoted father before he died 12 years ago that he'd drive down from New Jersey almost every weekend to watch Eric play basketball for one year at a Division III school in Maryland and for three at an NAIA school in North Carolina.

When Willie Stoltz died at age 67 while Eric and Mark were in the process of opening their Phoenix sports bar, it seemed like a natural fit to the two co-owners to name the place after their dads.

"We love the name," Eric Stoltz said Sunday. "I've got my dad's name up in lights, so that's pretty cool. And my partner's dad is still alive and every time he comes down, he feels like the man."

When Pitino and the Louisville staff, family and friends arrived at "Coach & Willie's" for dinner on Saturday night, Stoltz introduced himself to the legendary coach and shared the story of the bar's name. For the next hour, Stoltz, Pitino and other dinner guests swapped stories about "Willie" Minardi and Willie Stoltz and marveled at the unusual circumstances that brought them all together.

"It was a great experience," Eric Stoltz said. "You hear stories about coaches and what they're like, but that guy couldn't have been more of a real person and genuine good dude. He impressed me. He was a great guy."

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