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Pitino finally ready to deliver a title?

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By Josh Cook

Twelve years and 15 days ago Rick Pitino was hired as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Louisville.

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For Cardinals fans everywhere the question wasn’t “When will he lead us to a national championship?” it was, “How many national titles will he lead us to?”

If you would have told them then that UofL wouldn’t win a championship in any of Pitino’s first 11 seasons (and that he had stayed for 11 seasons, for that matter), you would have likely been laughed at.

That’s because Cards’ fans expected instant success from a coach who had built a career – save one major misstep – on just that.

Most of you know the back story.

The gritty kid from New York City, who rose up quickly through the coaching ranks, guided Providence College (who?!) to the Final Four in his second season. He used that as a springboard to the New York Knicks’ job and in two seasons led Patrick Ewing & Co. to the team’s first division title in nearly 20 years.

However after losing to Michael Jordan in the NBA playoffs, Pitino returned to college, resurrecting in only two years the Kentucky program that Eddie Sutton had left for dead.

In his seventh season in Lexington he guided the Wildcats to their first national championship in 18 years and in his eighth he took them back to the title game (they lost to Arizona in overtime). If he wasn’t the best coach in college basketball, he was the only one who could give Mike Krzyzewski a run for his money.

Ironically, though, Pitino left UK after the Boston Celtics gave him a proverbial Brinks truck full of the green stuff. You probably know how that went. Pitino lost the Tim Duncan lottery and famously lost his cool in a postgame press conference, declaring, “Larry Bird’s not walking through that door fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door!”

In his second year – the one that marked major improvements at his previous stops – Boston won just 19 games in the strike-shortened season. He resigned near the midway point of his fourth season with the Celtics. It was an unmitigated disaster. 

He wasn’t on the open market long. In early 2001 UofL Athletic Director Tom Jurich lured Pitino to Louisville in what was considered a major coup for the Cards. To paraphrase former UofL football coach Howard Schnellenberger, UofL fans believed their basketball team was on a collision course with national title, the only variable was time.

But 11 seasons in, Louisville has yet to have its “One Shining Moment.” In fact the school only has been to two Final Fours – surprising to most, considering Pitino’s track record.

Some of that hasn’t been his fault. There have been some injuries and early-defections (Amir Johnson, Donta Smith, Sebastian Telfair, Terrence Jennings).

However some of it has been his fault. He has made some bad calls in recruiting (i.e. Telfair over Rajon Rondo) and some even worse calls in his personal life (i.e. Karen Sypher). The latter came to light on the heels of the Cards still unexplainable collapse against Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

It might be time for Pitino to go, I thought. The game, I believed, had passed him by, especially when he started using terms like “bridge season.”

But if time has taught us anything about Pitino and his teams, it’s those times that you expect the least that you are surprised the most. There was a tie for third-place in the Big East in 2011 and the unforeseen run to the Final Four last season. And although Louisville lost to its archrival in the national semifinal – and UK went on to win its eighth title – the Cards were being talked about as frontrunners for the title in 2013.

Thanks to the breakout season of Russ Smith, as well as the continued development of several other players, and in spite of a midseason 3-game losing streak, UofL has lived up to those lofty expectations. The Cards tied for the Big East regular-season title, won the conference’s postseason tournament and entered the Big Dance seeded No. 1 overall.

In the NCAA Tournament Louisville has lambasted its competition, winning by an average of 21.8 points. The lone remaining No. 1-seeded team, the Cards are the favorites to cut down the nets Monday night in the Georgia Dome.

And although Pitino, 60, has seemed to mellow – slightly anyway – over the years (possibly because of a combination of losing his best friend and brother-in-law Billy Minardi in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the public humiliation of the Sypher situation and the heart-melting moment of becoming a grandparent) he is as relentless as ever. He coaches every single possession of the game.

The only coach to take three different programs to the Final Four, Pitino is now trying to become the first coach to guide two different teams to titles. This is – in spite of the horrific injury to reserve guard Kevin Ware in the Midwest Regional final against Duke – his best chance at that. But could this be his last chance? He has several years left on his contract, but it has taken him this long to be a Final Four favorite.

Sure the Cards could be very good again next season, especially if everyone except Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng returns. But down Interstate 64 John Calipari has the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball coming in.

But that’s next season. There are still three days left in this season, and 12 years and 18 days after he was hired, Rick Pitino will try to give UofL fans what they have long wanted and expected – a national championship.