Does 2013 Title Mean Rick Pitino Has Been Better at Louisville Than at Kentucky?
For the second time in his 60 years, Long Island's Rick Pitino has led a school from the state of Kentucky to a national championship.
In 1996, the school wore blue and started with the letter "K." Eighteen years later, the school wears red and starts with the letter "L."
Murray State, you're next.
When Pitino left the University of Kentucky in 1997 for his second stint in the NBA, it was hard to imagine he'd ever replicate the success he enjoyed in Lexington.
Now 12 years into his tenure at Louisville, it's not only conceivable, it's a verifiable fact: Rick Pitino has accomplished more as a head coach of the Cardinals than he ever did fronting Big Blue Nation.
That's less a referendum on his time with Kentucky than it is an acknowledgement of what Pitino has meant to the Louisville program. And indeed he has meant a great deal.
It's hard now to remember, but Louisville basketball was in a protracted decline when Pitino arrived in March of 2001.
Legendary coach Denny Crum—like so many clipboard Goliaths before him—had become more token than program builder, and it showed in the standings. Crum's Cardinals posted losing records in two of his final four seasons and hadn't advanced to the Final Four since winning a national championship 16 years earlier.
Louisville's wane was a milder—but no less serious—version of the misfortune that had befallen fellow Conference USA members like Marquette and DePaul, former powerhouse programs that were finding it harder and harder to compete as so called "mid-majors" in the BCS conference era.
When Louisville hired Pitino, it was with an exit plan in mind. The Cardinals wanted to penetrate the power-conference cabal. Pitino was going to help them do it.
And he did.
His first year at Louisville, Pitino squeezed 19 wins out of a team that had gone 12-19 under Crum one season prior. The year after that, his Cardinals went 25-7, climbed as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll after starting the season unranked and won the Conference USA postseason tournament.
Months later, Louisville announced that it was joining the Big East.
A press release from the school contained a telling reference to Pitino's Big East ties as the former head coach at Providence. It could just as well have included a paragraph or two about Pitino's New York squawk, his standout career at UMass or his two seasons as an assistant at Syracuse.
The personal and professional hallmarks that made Pitino a coaching embodiment of East Coast basketball were the very things that made him a perfect steward for the Cardinals' transition to a new conference. Ricky Pitino from Bayville, N.Y. was bringing the Cardinals home.
It's impossible to project the arc of Louisville basketball had it never joined the Big East, but it's safe to assume the program has benefited tremendously from its membership.
In two short years, a basketball program in decline had not only experienced a resurrection but used that momentum to gain entry into America's most celebrated basketball league.
Pitino was the reason why.
That accomplishment alone might have been enough, but Pitino was just getting started.
In 2005, his team won 33 games and made the Final Four. After missing the tournament one year later, the Cardinals embarked on a still-active streak of seven consecutive NCAA appearances.
That streak includes three 30-win seasons, four Elite Eight appearances, two Final Fours and, most recently, a national championship. It is a run that rivals Crum's heyday in the early 1980's and may someday stand alone as the single most successful period in Louisville's basketball history.
Of course, this argument wouldn't be complete unless we also acknowledged what Pitino accomplished at Kentucky.
When the precocious former point guard took over for Eddie Sutton in Lexington, Big Blue Nation was in disarray. The pay-for-play scandal that led to Sutton's ouster left Pitino's Wildcats on the front end of a two-year postseason ban.
Not only did Pitino weather the storm, he simultaneously managed to improve the team during its temporary banishment. Kentucky regained full eligibility in 1991-92 and immediately took off on a six-year run that saw it qualify for five Elite Eights, three Final Fours and two championship games.
In those six seasons, Pitino's Kentucky teams never won less than 27 games and never finished the season ranked outside the AP Top 10.
It was, in no uncertain terms, one of the most dominant stretches any program has put together in the post-John Wooden era. That it came on the heels of NCAA sanctions is all the more impressive.
But here is where it's important to distinguish between where Kentucky stood in 1989 and where Louisville was in 2001.
Humbled as they were, the Wildcats were still a preeminent college basketball powerhouse coming off three top-10 poll finishes in the last six years.
Where would you say Rick Pitino had the most impressive coaching stint?
More importantly, Kentucky basketball still enjoyed all the institutional advantages upon which its legacy had been built: SEC membership, rabid fan support, the brand power invoked by that interlocking "U" and "K."
The Cardinals, by contrast, were in triage. Louisville was a declining program stranded among other declining programs in a second-rate league.
Pitino was the athletic department's meal ticket, a way out of limbo and into the light.
Perhaps Louisville would have found its way into the Big East without Pitino, but it's unlikely it would have regained its former glory or grown strong enough to attract the attention of the ACC, a conference the Cardinals will join in 2014.
More than likely, Louisville would have followed the path taken by the likes of DePaul and Houston, two once-proud basketball schools still searching for that elusive soft landing amid the tumult of the BCS era.
When Pitino helped lift Louisville from the mid-major morass, it was a more meaningful achievement than anything he could have possibly done at Kentucky.
The national championship doesn't so much establish that legacy as it does confirm it.
Kentucky was a touch-up job of the highest order.
Louisville was, and will forever be, Rick Pitino's masterpiece.
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