Whatever else has ever been said about Rick Pitino — and there are, at last count, eight books written either by or about Pitino, one book for every 8 ½ years he’s spent on earth — there has always been one indisputable truth about him.
The man can coach. Goodness, can he coach.
He could coach when he was 26, when he got his first top job at Boston University, and at 35 when he took Providence to a most improbable Final Four. He could sure coach at both basketball powerhouses that fuel the winters in Kentucky, in Lexington and Louisville, and he could even coach when he scuffled through the only on-court failure of his career, with the Celtics (mainly because he had a lousy GM named Rick Pitino).
What we saw these last five days in Atlantic City, at Boardwalk Hall, wasn’t even a little surprising. The Iona Gaels were seeded ninth at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, but that was a misleading number, the product of the oddest winter of college basketball we’ve ever seen. They still had to win four games in five days, and they did.
“It’s been difficult coaching this year,” Pitino said, maybe half an hour after Iona ended Fairfield’s even more improbable ride, 60-51, “and even harder playing this year.”
This was a different kind of challenge for Pitino, because for the first time he wasn’t inheriting a program in need of rehabilitation. Iona had been to seven straight MAAC title games before he arrived. They had won four straight titles. They were the class of the league under Tim Cluess, who would still be coaching in New Rochelle if his health hadn’t betrayed him.
(And good for Pitino for giving Cluess an immediate shout-out during his postgame opening remarks, telling Cluess, “We share this with you tonight.”)
No, this time it was the coach who needed rehabilitation, whose reputation took what could have been a fatal beating in his final days at Louisville, who served a penance coaching in Greece, who probably wouldn’t have found five schools eager to hire him while the anvil of NCAA justice hovered over his head (as it does still).
But Iona was one of those schools. Iona is as serious about college hoops as mid-major status allows. Iona is Westchester County, where Pitino has lived, not far from Winged Foot Golf Club, where he has been a member for years. Iona hired him one year ago Sunday.
One year later, the Gaels are bound for Indianapolis. Pitino is bound for an NCAA Tournament, the third coach to bring five different teams to the party. Iona spent 51 days on pause, then had the last two weeks of its season wiped out to thanks to the virus. There were 51 different reasons why this could’ve been a lost-cause season.
It wasn’t. The Gaels are a team stuffed with smart, tough players led by a quintessential Pitino guard named Asante Gist. Pitino wouldn’t let his team feel sorry for itself even during long periods of inactivity because of 525,000 families, for starters, who have had a worse go of the last year. They haven’t played a lot. But they’re sure playing their best at the right time.
“I don’t know how many points he’s worth,” Fairfield coach Jay Young said of Pitino, “but he’s a hell of a coach and he’s a Hall of Famer.”
That has always been right. It has been easy for his critics to latch onto ancillary issues. Some think he should have far more than two national titles for all the powerhouses he built in Kentucky and Louisville. He swore for two years the Knicks were his dream job, then couldn’t beat a trail to Kentucky fast enough. Louisville ended in calamity.
In a time when most college coaches prowl the sidelines like gym teachers in sweatpants and pullovers, Pitino is still nattily attired — and told his team he was packing eight suits when they left New Rochelle for Atlantic City.
He’s halfway through his supply now. Four more suits means the Gaels would be playing in the Final Four. Don’t bet on him needing to send out to the cleaners to replenish. But that really isn’t the point with this team, or this season.
“I’m New York strong all the way through,” said Pitino, born in Manhattan, raised on Long Island, working now in New Rochelle, who on Saturday won the 659th game of his career and next week will coach in the NCAA Tournament again. “This is a great way to end a long career.”
And for Iona, it’s a splendid way to cap a most absurd season.