Rick Pitino was ready to hang it up.
The future Hall of Fame coach was prepared to retire following the 2010-11 season when his University of Louisville basketball team lost to Morehead State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Pitino dabbled in some broadcasting for the remainder of the tournament following his team’s early exit.
And Pitino was thinking it was time to turn to broadcasting full time.
”I almost did it,” Pitino said. “I told myself it was a great time to do it. It even got to the point where I sat down with somebody and said, ‘This is it’.”
But the man with 629 career victories, including 42 in the NCAA Tournament, didn’t pull the trigger.
”My wife told me I would miss it too much. And then all of a sudden three of my closest friends in life go back to work (after retiring). They all went back to work and I called them and said, ‘Why?’ They sad they couldn’t get any better at golf, they were bored as hell and their life wasn’t as meaningful.
”I learned a valuable lesson from those guys - I would miss it.”
Just about 19 months later, the outlook is drastically different for Pitino.
There was no retirement, instead he returned to lead Louisville to the Big East Conference Tournament title and a trip to the Final Four last season. He spent the summer in his words, “having a whole lot of fun,” recently turned 60 and then signed a contract extension that will keep him on the sidelines until he’s 70.
Now, Pitino is thinking national title. He has one of the top five teams in the country, loaded with talent, and ready to open the season on Sunday in a 4 p.m. contest against Manhattan College.
”I’m having as much fun as I can with these guys and it’s non-stop,” Pitino said. “I am very relaxed because I am coaching these guys.
“I don’t take things as serious anymore as I once did. I am in a great frame of mind and I am very, very excited and happy about everything in my life right now. I am a grandfather now and that means an awful lot to me. My life is very, very good because away from the game of basketball I really do smell the roses.”
It hasn’t always been like that for Pitino.
A coach since his early 20s, Pitino was a mover and shaker when he was a younger coach. The native New Yorker went from head coach at Boston University to an assistant with the New York Knicks.
Pitino coached Providence College to the 1987 Final Four, was the head coach with the Knicks for two seasons before spending eight years – three Final Fours and the 1996 national title – at Kentucky. He left Lexington to be the President and Head Coach of the Boston Celtics and lasted for two and a half years before replacing Denny Crum at U of L on March 21, 2001.
”When I failed with the Celtics, I said one of the reasons is that I was not humble enough with the way I was thinking,” Pitino said. “Instead of being patient and saying it will take a little time to win, I was in a rush to do everything. I traded this guy and that guy. I thought I could immediately turn them around.
“I should have known the NBA and figured out that wasn’t the move to make, but I wasn’t humble enough. You get smarter when you get older.”
Pitino, who has suffered through losing his brother-in-law and best friend (Billy Minardi) in the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the lengthy and high-profile extortion scandal, has said several times while preparing this U of L team for the season and high expectation that he’s now “humbled.”
”Look what he had to go through four years ago (scandal) and in ’01 when I was with him,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, a former Pitino assistant and still close friend said. “He went through a lot, but he’s so up beat.
”Because I love him so much, I am happy to see him in such a good place in his life. And he really is, he’s in a great place.”
Pitino said several times in recent interviews that the “switch has come on,” since the loss to Morehead State and the thought of retirement.
During his first eight years at U of L, Pitino guided the Cardinals to the 2005 Final Four and two Elite Eight appearances. He did have two seasons when the Cardinals missed the NCAA and played in the NIT.
Pitino said the team two years ago “was a great bunch of guys who had a back break,” when Preston Knowles was injured against Morehead State.
After opting not to retire, Pitino signed two McDonald’s All-Americans and a top five class of guys that were freshmen last season. He then guided a team that lost its final two regular-season games on an eight-game winning streak that ended with a loss to eventual national champion Kentucky in last year’s Final Four.
”The year before, that team gave me as much joy as this past team,” Pitino said. “Sure, the outcome was different but I’ve just enjoyed being around these guys. They are so much fun to be around. They keep me young.”
Pitino landed a late recruiting coup this offseason with Montrezl Harrell and despite working “as hard as we ever have” in recruiting, he spent plenty of time relaxing in the offseason. He was at Saratoga and Del Mar each for a week, took each of his kids on a trip, spent time with them all as a family and is dabbling more with horse racing again, naming several horses after his players, friends and one even South Floyd, the road he drives into work on every day.
”I’m really enjoying myself right now,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if I could live without basketball. It’s my life and right now it’s a damn good life.”
Kevin Willard, whose father is a longtime Pitino friend and former assistant, spent 10 years with Pitino at Boston and U of L and has a good perspective on the coach that many say has mellowed. Willard is the head coach at Seton Hall.
”He’s not old, but I think as he has gotten older, he’s enjoyed it more,” Willard said. “A lot of people don’t fully understand how hard it was when we got (to U of L). People don’t understand when you take over a great program, and coach (Denny) Crum had built a program to legendary status. But it wasn’t (at that level) when coach Pitino got there. It was very, very hard when he got there.
”But he always finds a way to get it done. Now, it’s not as hard as when he first got there. All of that early hard work has let him smile a little more during the summers. He’s got that machine rolling.”
Pitino is hoping it’s going well enough for a national title.
Armed with a new contract, a bigger smile and a load of talent, Pitino will take aim on that beginning Sunday afternoon in the KFC Yum! Center.
”I’m having fun and this is my passion,” Pitino said.
If he ever had a doubt – which he says he hasn’t – that he should have retired it ended one morning this summer. And it wasn’t because of a victory on the floor or in recruiting, but a visit from former U of L star Earl Clark.
”Earl asked if he could come by and I said, ‘Uh-oh, I hope he’s not in trouble’,” he recalled. “He sat down in my office with me and I won’t tell you details, but it was such a beautiful story. He left and I sat in my office and cried for 20 minutes.
”I had to go to a staff meeting, so I went into the bathroom and I cried again. I couldn’t stop, I just kept tearing up and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what you get when you have a relationship with these guys. Relationships are important and a relationship is something you are going to have for years.
”Why would I ever want to give all of that up. I’m enjoying every minute of it.”