Day 6: Louisville | Traveling Violations
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For Rick Pitino the most surprising thing about the 2002-03 Louisville season, when the Cardinals came out of nowhere to win 25 games including 17 consecutive at one point, was just that – the success.
For everyone around him, the big surprise was Pitino himself. Winning is what he does; the results weren't a shock. But the way the 50-year-old handled each triumph and, even more unlikely, each setback was.
When U of L won, Pitino insisted the victory be toasted and treasured. There were celebratory dinners and pats of congratulations, a far cry from the famously driven coach who in seasons past never seemed satisfied.
"He made sure every success was noted," said former assistant Mick Cronin.
Then came the real shocker. When the Cardinals lost (and it happened just seven times), he actually took it well.
"I think I accepted – well, accepted is probably the wrong word – but I understood what winning and losing are all about," Pitino said Thursday from his big office at U of L. "When we lost a game, rather than staying up all night fretting over the loss we just came back and stayed positive the next day and got on with our next opponent."
This is the more mature Pitino, the Pitino with a better perspective on life. The one who – and let's not confuse this – still demands total excellence from every player, coach and support staff member but now isn't tearing himself apart when it doesn't t happen.
He has long ago shed that greed is good image. He's, at least a little bit, a smell the roses kind of guy now.
It all stems from two life-changing events, one bad, one unspeakably horrible.
First came Pitino's only professional failure, a humbling end to his professional coaching ambitions. In January 2001 he resigned as coach of the Boston Celtics. For a coach that had previously tasted only success, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
"The pros changed my whole way of thinking," Pitino said. "The pros realize you have another game. You have to stay positive. You have to stay upbeat. Your mood in a negative way [can] affect the team. So I totally changed my ways after a loss.
"I didn't learn that with the Knicks [because with] the Knicks we didn't lose much. We were on some long winning streaks. The Celtics had far more adversity."
Then came the real adversity, Sept. 11, 2001. Pitino had just started as the U of L coach when his brother-in-law and best friend since childhood, Billy Minardi, died when terrorists flew a plane into his office inside the World Trade Center.
Pitino and Minardi had spoken nearly everyday since they played high school ball together on Long Island. Pitino married Minardi's sister, Joanne. The loss stuns him to this day.
Which is why suddenly losing basketball games was no longer the end of the world.
"I think 9-11 changed my life (forever) in every aspect, basketball, family, just life," Pitino said.
"There is nothing that goes by where I won't say I appreciated a trip or I appreciated time with someone. Whether it is a friend in New York that I spend two hours with at dinner or play ball with him at the New York athletic club, those moments that I used to take for granted, I don't take anything for granted anymore.
"Every little thing with friendships matter."
This is the Pitino who enters his third season with the Cardinals. He is no less talented of a teacher, recruiter, builder or motivator. But he makes sure he has fun because he understands the importance of it.
Thursday morning he was content, relaxed and engaging as he took time between individual practice sessions to relax in his office. And he should be. This is a time to enjoy.
His program nearly is completely rebuilt. It is one recruiting class (a gifted five-man group highlighted by Brooklyn phenom Sebastian Telfair set to arrive next fall) from hitting on all cylinders.
Meanwhile the work ethic, the mentality of toughness and the expectations – the Pitino way – have all been set.
"I think right now we're are at the point where we all feel comfortable and we are all enjoying it immensely," said Pitino, who is looking to make U of L his third Final Four program. "We are no longer worrying about little things we did before like class attendance or discipline. It is all ingrained in all of them now."
Despite some his public comments – "just doing my Lou Holtz impression" – Pitino believes he has a good club on his hands this year, one capable of great things.
And a team whose every success will be savored by its thankful coach.