By John Clay Lexington Herald-Leader
ATLANTA — He looks older now because he is older now.
Rick Pitino is 60 years old and as the bright light hit his face on the press conference podium at the World Congress Center on Sunday, those who knew him way back when could see where the ravages of time have taken their toll.
It’s been a long time since that day in 1989 when the young, brash New Yorker was introduced as the head coach at Kentucky and began a reconstruction project that added fresh chapters, including a national title in 1996, to an already historic book.
Tonight, when Louisville plays Michigan in the NCAA championship game, Pitino could be the first coach in history to win national titles at two different schools.
Until the end of days, he is likely to be the only coach ever to win national titles at different schools from the same state.
“It’s not that significant to me,” Pitino claimed Sunday about the historical reference.
What’s significant is the winding road that has brought him back to this point.
There have been massive highs along the way, but there have been crushing lows. There was the death of his young son, Daniel, in 1987, before he even came to Lexington. There was his professional failure with the Boston Celtics. There was a personal scandal. There was the loss of his brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, on 9/11.
At times like this, we like to hear stories, so let’s focus on two.
The first involves the team Louisville plays today. After resigning as coach of the Celtics, Pitino almost became a Michigan man.
“I agreed to be the Michigan coach,” Pitino admitted. As he finalized the deal, his wife, Joanne, objected, saying the family didn’t know anyone in Michigan and that he should take the Louisville job instead.
Rick: “You don’t understand, the Kentucky coach can’t coach at Louisville.”
Joanne: “It’s one game every year, and every other year you have to visit. What’s the big deal?”
Rick: “We’ll be miserable. You don’t want to put yourself in that situation.”
Joanne: “You know what, that line you’re always using, ‘I’d rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb?’ You’re an F-ing lamb.”
With that, the lion took the Louisville job.
At first, Kentucky fans feared he would duplicate his UK success for the school they hated most. When that didn’t happen, they dismissed him as irrelevant.
Then when John Calipari became UK coach and signed stars and lifted a title banner, they gleefully predicted the turncoat was destined to forever live in Calipari’s shadow.
And yet, here he is, back on the sport’s grandest stage in what has been on a personal level an unbelievable week.
Last Sunday, Pitino avenged his epic 1992 NCAA Tournament loss to Duke by beating the Blue Devils in the Midwest Region finals and earned plaudits for the way he handled Kevin Ware’s horrific injury and its aftermath.
On Thursday, his 30-year-old son, Richard, was introduced as the new head basketball coach at the University of Minnesota.
On Saturday afternoon, Goldencents, a horse of which Pitino is a part-owner, won the Santa Anita Derby, an important Kentucky Derby prep.
Then, Saturday night, Pitino’s team rallied from 12 points down to beat Wichita State 72-68 for a berth in tonight’s title game.
Sunday, a media member asked Pitino: Have you made a deal with the devil?
“I can give you some years where I can name the other way,” the coach said with a smile.
So here, on the eve of Pitino matching his greatest win, let’s hear that second story, the one about loss.
“I’m still not over losing a child and I’m still not over 9/11,” Pitino said. “I still to this day think about those guys all the time.
“I wanted to watch Zero Dark Thirty. It meant a lot to me. My children said, ‘Skip the first five minutes, (then) watch it, you’ll enjoy it. And I did. That moment when that happened at the end (the killing of Osama bin Laden) was very crucial to me.
“I can face anything. That, I had a very difficult time facing.”
He has faced it, however, that and a lot more. There was a point at Kentucky when a fair amount of people thought Rick Pitino was a god-like figure who could do no wrong.
Turns out, he was as human as the rest of us — a human who happens to be one heck of a basketball coach.
That’s the one thing that has never changed.