Wonder what the rest of the Free World outside of Kentucky is talking about, thinking about, worrying about this week?
It’s college basketball, of course, that occupies our every thought and conversation.
Two Italian guys who took far different routes to coach our two major universities’ basketball teams are responsible for our current hoops fixation: Rick Pitino, who was first the tamer of Wildcats in Lexington at the University of Kentucky, and John Calipari, who is now in charge at UK, two times removed from Pitino’s stay in Big Blue country.
Pitino won a national championship at UK and left enough good players for Tubby Smith to win another.
Enter Pitino once more.
After wandering in the basketball wilderness, he surprised the basketball world when he not only returned to the Commonwealth but at UK’s “Little Brother,” the University of Louisville.
Here’s the bottom line: Pitino almost didn’t leave UK at all. And why did he leave?
The first story I told in my book covered the circumstances exactly how and why Rick left. To this day, no one else has reported what I am about to tell you. I had several friends in Pitino’s Memorial Coliseum office tell me exactly what happened.
Pitino left Lexington for two reasons: Joanne, his wife, would be happier returning to the East Coast to live. And Jim O’Brien, his top assistant at UK, would accompany him to Boston to help him coach the Celtics. Rick could pay O’Brien enough money ($450,000 a year) to provide lifetime care for his mentally-challenged son.
Would Pitino leave?
Back to Pitino’s office: His friends didn’t know if the coach would open his office door and go to where the TV, radio and sportswriters were gathered to report on Pitino’s leaving (or staying).
Finally, Pitino turned the doorknob and made the announcement that forever changed the history of basketball not only at UK but several years later also at UofL.
When Pitino decided to leave Boston, he became the hottest coaching prospect at several schools. He chose the University of Michigan.
But UofL – and Joanne – entered the picture. She asked Rick several questions.
‘Have you seen the Michigan campus?”
“Do you have any friends there?”
“You love Kentucky, you love Louisville and you have many friends there. Tom Jurich (UofL’s director of athletics) has been great to you. Why don’t you take the Louisville job?”
That did it for Pitino. He called the Michigan AD and then Jurich.
Said Pitino: “When I was at UK, I played most of my golf at Valhalla. My Louisville friends and I would eat in Louisville restaurants.”
And Pitino loved Thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs. It’s no surprise that he became a horse owner.
The Cats and Cards first played each other in 1913 at Buell Armory, the ROTC gym on the Lexington campus.
This Saturday’s game is a big deal for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that UK refused to play UofL in the early years because it didn’t consider the Louisville university’s teams strong enough to be competitive with UK. The teams played nine times from 1913 to 1922 and UK won seven times.
For five of the next six years the teams met only in NCAA Tournament games. The teams started playing regularly in 1984.
Kentucky leads the series 29-15.
Former Courier-Journal sports columnist Billy Reed, now an executive in residence at Georgetown (Ky.) College, was a major forde in getting the two teams to play on a yearly basis. Reed kept a UK-UofL rivalry on the front burner until finally some politicians started pressing the issue and more or less forced our two major universities to play each other once each year in both football and basketball.
Now both Pitino and UK’s John Calipari are master coaches who have their teams just two games away from the national championship.
Calipari’s UK team, rated No. 1 in America, and Pitino’s UofL team, will clash in Saturday’s semifinal in New Orleans to see which team will challenge the Ohio State-Kansas winner for the national championship.
Few basketball experts will favor Pitino and UofL, but in perhaps his finest coaching job ever, Pitino has the Cardinals peaking at just the right time.