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Henry's Highlights
Thursday, March 31, 2005

By Henry Hinton

Louisville getting what it paid for


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When Rick Pitino took the head coaching job at the University of Louisville, he created quite a buzz throughout the college basketball world.

U of L athletic director Tom Jurich announced at the time that Louisville was going after the best coach in America. He might have been right.

Those early days were not pleasant for Pitino. There were some long nights and some tough losses, including one right here in Greenville.

On that night, January 16, 2002, East Carolina defeated the Cardinals 87-77.  Coach Pitino was so frustrated that he intentionally got a technical foul with a little more than a minute left in the game.

ECU Coach Bill Herrion repeated something after that game that he had said before: “Rick Pitino is a great coach and he came to Louisville to win national championships.”

The Pirates got them that night, but since that time the gap between Louisville and the rest of the conference has been widening.

Now, the fiery and sometimes controversial Pitino has accomplished the ultimate in college basketball.  He is taking his team to the Final Four — considered the pinnacle destination in his profession. The only thing left for him to do is what Herrion predicted — to win it all.

This might be the year for Louisville. An amazing come from behind victory over West Virginia has catapulted the Cardinals into the final weekend of college basketball. Pitino’s team was down 20 to the Mountaineers before getting it together and claiming the overtime victory.

This weekend caps what Jurich had envisioned when Pitino was hired three years ago. This will be Louisville’s first trip to the Final Four in 19 years.

Louisville’s financial commitment to its basketball program is paying huge dividends.  Not only does the program sell out every home game in Freedom Hall, the high-profile Pitino has brought newfound notoriety to the university as well.  In short, the investment has paid off for Jurich.

Pitino, who has gone through some tough times in recent years, is back on top.  After a difficult stint in the NBA with the Boston Celtics, Pitino declared himself a true college coach.

Shortly after making the decision to return to the college game, Pitino’s best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, a financial executive in New York City, was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Pitino announced in a television interview shortly thereafter that the 911 event had profoundly changed him.  People close to him agree.  They say it has mellowed him.

Perhaps it has. ECU fans who have watched him prowl the sidelines in Williams Arena the last three years might argue that point. Still, there is something to be said for the way he has handled the Minges Maniacs without losing his cool —a challenge Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins has been unable to master.

Louisville is leaving Conference USA at the end of this year but the league and schools like East Carolina will benefit from the Cardinals’ run for a national championship, both in prestige and finances.

The association with Pitino and the Louisville program will be a positive one as the season ends. In an Internet fan poll on Wednesday, ESPN was asking, “Who is the best coach in the Final Four?”  Pitino was the overwhelming leader, receiving nearly as many votes as the other three combined.  Pretty good company, too, as the poll pits Pitino against the likes of Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber.

This Saturday, Rick Pitino will become the first coach in NCAA history to take teams from three different schools to the Final Four. He has been there with Kentucky and Providence in previous years.

There is little doubt that C-USA fans throughout the country will be Cardinal fans, at least for a weekend.


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02/23/2007 10:16:11 AM

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