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If UK can’t land its top coaching candidates, is it time to bring Rick Pitino back?

Scott Drew has already said no.

The odds of landing Dan Hurley always seemed impossibly long.

Any plan to pursue Chicago Bulls head man Billy Donovan is complicated by timing and the needs of contemporary college hoops roster construction.

If Kentucky cannot land any of its perceived top three candidates in its search for the replacement for John Calipari (Woo Pig) as Wildcats men’s basketball coach, might it then be time for UK to contemplate a reunion with Rick Pitino?

St. John’s coach Rick Pitino led the Red Storm to a 20-13 mark in his first season at the school in 2023-24. Pitino, 71, went 219-50 in eight seasons as Kentucky head coach (1989-1997) and led the Wildcats to three Final Fours and the 1996 NCAA Tournament title.
St. John’s coach Rick Pitino led the Red Storm to a 20-13 mark in his first season at the school in 2023-24. Pitino, 71, went 219-50 in eight seasons as Kentucky head coach (1989-1997) and led the Wildcats to three Final Fours and the 1996 NCAA Tournament title.

That idea, of course, would have seemed unthinkable when Pitino incensed the Big Blue Nation by returning to the commonwealth after his flame-out with the Boston Celtics to become Louisville head coach in 2001.

Now, the pluses and minuses of Kentucky reuniting with Pitino at least bear our consideration.

The pluses about Pitino

At 71, Pitino is late in his coaching career. However, he remains an energized and effective coach. This past season, his first as head man at St. John’s, Pitino led the Red Storm to a 20-13 mark that included victories in six of the final seven games of the season.

The only loss in that closing stretch came by five points, 95-90, to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut in the Big East Tournament semifinals. That result made St. John’s the only team that played UConn within single digits in the Huskies’ dominant nine-game run through the postseason tournaments.

In the three seasons prior to this past one, Pitino coached Iona College to the NCAA Tournament two times.

Not that long ago, age could be deployed by rival recruiters against well-seasoned coaches such as Pitino. Now, given the transitory nature of men’s college hoops rosters in the current era, that should not be nearly as great a detriment to hiring an older coach as it once was.

Many college players, after all, are only signing on for one-year voyages at a school. How long their coach might be in place doesn’t matter to them at all.

Back in the 1990s, a far younger Pitino presided over one of the golden periods in UK’s regal men’s basketball history.

Taking over the Kentucky program when it had been brought low by NCAA sanctions arising from an Eddie Sutton-era cheating scandal, Pitino rebuilt Wildcats basketball from the ashes. From 1989 through 1997, Pitino led UK to a 219-50 record.

In the six seasons in which Pitino coached NCAA Tournament-eligible Kentucky teams, UK reached the round of eight five times; the Final Four three times; the national title game twice; and won the national championship once.

Rick Pitino and the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats celebrated after UK beat Syracuse 76-67 to win the NCAA Tournament championship.
Rick Pitino and the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats celebrated after UK beat Syracuse 76-67 to win the NCAA Tournament championship.

Coached expertly by Tubby Smith, a team stocked with Pitino recruits won another NCAA crown in the first season, 1997-98, after Pitino had departed UK to coach the NBA’s Boston Celtics.

Recently, Pitino has lamented publicly that his biggest career miscalculation was ever leaving Kentucky.

A Pitino return to Big Blue in the twilight of his coaching career would close that circle.

The downsides

Of course, the idea of a UK reunion with Ricky P. carries some clear negatives.

The track record of coaches returning to former jobs has not been stellar in big-time college sports (see Bobby Petrino’s ill-fated second stint, 2014 through 2018, as Louisville football coach for one example).

There are some exceptions, but, generally, the idea “you can’t go home again” has proven mostly true for coaches.

Dec 6, 2023; Queens, New York, USA; St. John’s Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino at Carnesecca Arena. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 6, 2023; Queens, New York, USA; St. John’s Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino at Carnesecca Arena. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Bringing Pitino back would mean the University of Kentucky administration would have to make peace with hiring a coach who carries more baggage than the skycaps at the Atlanta International Airport.

On the back end of Pitino’s run (2001 through 2017) as Louisville head coach, he presided over a program that endured sex scandals, NCAA rules violations scandals and scandals that involved both sex and NCAA rules violations.

Given the relaxed rules environment that prevails in big-time college sports now, I don’t think past NCAA scandals are as disqualifying for coaches as they once should have been.

Even so, the history of scandals associated with Pitino’s Louisville tenure is robust and would be a lot for UK to overlook.

The verdict

So should Kentucky seriously consider its former coach for a “Deja Blue” excursion?

That answer is a qualified yes.

The entertainment value of watching UK and U of L fans “switch” sides on Pitino again would alone almost justify the hiring.

Even the thought of a Kentucky coach working the sidelines at Rupp Arena with a U of L Cardinals tattoo on his back — which Pitino, as far as we know, still has — is a hoot.

If things went well in Lexington, maybe Pitino could relaunch “Bravo Pitino,” but this time in the Distillery District.

Alas, Mitch Barnhart and UK should prioritize landing a coach of high capability who is younger and who would bring a less-checkered past than Pitino’s.

But if UK can’t land its top candidates, then Kentucky again turning to Rick Pitino in a time of Wildcats basketball uncertainty is not the worst idea in the world.

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