Rick Pitino pauses to smell roses at Kentucky Derby after unforgettable spring

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Here in Rick Pitino's perfect spring, where every day is kissed by karma and the good times never stop, it is easy to forget where the man was two years ago.

He was ready to hang it up.

It was March 2011, and Pitino was burning out on coaching and living in Louisville. His basketball team had maxed out in the Elite Eight in 2008 and '09, then been eliminated in the first round in 2010 and '11. Cardinals fans expecting a national championship since he arrived in 2001 were getting restless, especially with Pitino nemesis John Calipari growing dominant at Kentucky. During that time, Pitino endured the Karen Sypher extortion scandal and trial, which took its toll.

So Pitino called a few friends to get feedback on his retirement plan. Then he discreetly called Sandy Montag at IMG about getting a broadcasting job.

Pitino figured he could leave on good terms – he'd been at Louisville 10 years, the program was settled in its palatial new downtown arena, and he was handing his successor a talented recruiting class led by prep All-Americans Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear. But the voice in his head was Old Rick, Restless Rick, the one who loved the thrill being wanted during his first 50 years.

In the end, of course, Pitino decided to stay. His wife, Joanne, talked some sense into him.

"You need to coach as long as you can," she told him. "Look at Coach K. Look at Jim Boeheim. They're still enjoying it. When it's time to retire, you'll know it physically and mentally."

So Pitino persevered and ultimately prevailed – to an astonishing degree. Two years later, after contemplating all he could have missed by walking away too soon, he is thrilled that he did.

"It's been a great run," he said.

Great is an understatement. It has been a run that would impress even the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World.

The year after postponing retirement, Pitino took an injured, overachieving team to the Big East tournament championship and a surprise Final Four run. Then things really got fun.

This season the Cardinals were a powerful team throughout the year, winning a share of the Big East regular-season title and then taking the league tourney in dazzling fashion. They emphatically won four NCAA tournament games to reach the Final Four. The last one, a blowout of Duke, came after guard Kevin Ware shockingly and gruesomely snapped his leg during the first half.

And then the fun escalated again come April.

In less than a month's time, Rick Pitino has won the Santa Anita Derby, won the national championship, been voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, seen son Richard land the Minnesota head-coaching job and had his leading scorer decline the NBA draft and set up the Cardinals for a potential title repeat. It would be outright showing off if he tops it off by winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday as part owner of Goldencents.

"Coach Pitino," said Goldencents trainer Doug O'Neill, "is on an absolute roll right now."

He's two minutes and change away from completing the kind of double that sporting titans like George Steinbrenner and Bill Parcells could not achieve. They were champions in their sports but forever foiled in their attempts to win the biggest prize in horse racing.

At 5-1 odds, Goldencents is the third choice in the morning line behind Orb and Verrazano. But nobody has been a bigger deal or had a better time this Derby Week than Rick Pitino. He may not win the roses, but he's winning the party.

Goldencents shipped to Louisville last Saturday. His first day to jog on the Churchill Downs racing surface was Sunday, and the morning was peppered with periodic rain showers.

But here in Pitino's perfect spring, the clouds scattered and sun shined just in time for the colt to visit the track. Twenty minutes later, it was pouring.

These are the kinds of fate-kissed signs that have been following the Goldencents-Louisville basketball tandem since early April.

At the Final Four, the Cardinals were locked in a surprisingly grim struggle with huge underdog Wichita State. The ninth-seeded Shockers were pulling a shocker, taking a halftime lead on the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Louisville, which had captivated the national curiosity by overcoming the trauma of Ware's injury, appeared emotionally flat in the aftermath of a week in the eye of a media storm.

While Pitino and his players regrouped at halftime, Goldencents was running in the Santa Anita Derby – a key qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby under the new points system for entry into the field. Equipment manager Vinny Tatum watched the race and saw Goldencents pull off the upset victory, punching his ticket to the Derby.

Tatum weighed the situation: Tell Pitino about the horse race in the midst of a stressful halftime, or say nothing? He waited until the team was prepared to return to the court, then passed the good news to the coach.

The one-word response: "Good." Then Pitino was out the door and headed back to the court at the Georgia Dome.

Here's where the karma kicked in: The next race at Santa Anita Park, a non-descript claiming race, was won by a horse named Points Off The Bench. Right around that time, with Louisville trailing Wichita State by 12 and 25,000 Cardinals fans actively panicking, walk-on Tim Henderson came off the bench to start the rally. Henderson made consecutive 3-point shots, cutting the deficit in half, and getting Louisville back in a game it ultimately won by four points.

At that point, Henderson had made exactly one 3-pointer in the last two months. Points off the bench, indeed.

Louisville went on to win the national title two days later in a brilliantly played game against Michigan, making Pitino the first coach in history to win titles at two different schools (Kentucky in 1996 being the other). That morning, he'd been announced as a Hall of Famer. If anyone has had a better day in college basketball, name it.

Since then, life has been one long spring break for the 60-year-old Pitino.

He stayed up all night after the championship, checking voice mail at 5:30 a.m. and finding a congratulatory call from Bill Clinton in Abu Dhabi. He flew to New Orleans to cheer for Louisville's women's team in the national title game against Connecticut (karma missed the flight and the Cardinals were routed).

To commemorate his title, Pitino kept a crazy promise to his players by getting a tattoo – a red "L" on his left shoulder blade. Then he got the good news from Russ Smith – his leading scorer would return for his senior season, making the Cardinals strong contenders for another championship in 2014.

After doing some recruiting, Pitino returned to Louisville determined to win Derby Week. He made an appearance in the Churchill barn area Wednesday morning with son Michael and 6-foot-10 center Gorgui Dieng in tow, and the commotion was considerable. Politicians, actors, titans of industry and Arab sheiks have created a smaller stir than Pitino did. Hundreds of people descended on Barn 45.

"That was amazing," O'Neill said. "Everyone and their sister was here."

Churchill staff clumsily tried to create a media opportunity, lining up the TV cameras and reporters and attempting to have Pitino work his way down the line like a red-carpet reception. It failed miserably, but after watching Goldencents work out, the coach returned to the barn area for a more productive interview session.

Pitino said he was introduced to the idea of racing ownership by Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, a huge Kentucky booster. When Pitino was coaching the Wildcats, he'd take recruits to Claiborne for a tour that included seeing some of the great stallions in the world. Then they'd bring out Secretariat to dazzle the recruits.

Today Pitino names most of his horses after his Louisville players – there has been a Gorgui (Dieng), a (Peyton) Siva, Russdiculous, and a newly purchased 2-year-old named Three Point Luke – after Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock, who sank a slew of clutch 3s on the way to the national title.

The coach had no naming rights to Goldencents, buying just 5 percent of the horse. But now he's getting 95 percent of the attention.

"He's a rock star," O'Neill said.

After his star turn at the barn Wednesday, Pitino took O'Neill, his brother Dennis and fellow Goldencents owner Dave Kenney to play golf at Valhalla Golf Club – site of the 2014 PGA Championship, two previous PGAs and one Rider Cup. One can assume, here in Pitino's perfect spring, that he never hit a shot in the rough and sank every putt.

There was a fancy party to attend Thursday, and Pitino is hosting a huge bash Friday. If he makes it through the frivolity gauntlet to Saturday, there will be a race to attend. And perhaps win, like every other endeavor over the past month.

A guy who wanted to quit coaching two years ago is now on a winning streak that may never end.

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