AGONA Profile: Rick Pitino, The NCAA coaching legend
Panathinaikos have appointed Rick Pitino as head coach following the dismissal of Xavi Pascual last week. As Panathinaikos’ new man in charge, Pitino has the challenge of reviving the club’s EuroLeague campaign. The AGONA Profile takes a closer look at the highs, and lows, of his polarizing career in American basketball…
Unlike his coaching career, Pitino’s playing career is relatively short; though its likely where he fell in love with the game of basketball. Pitino attended St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, Long Island before enrolling at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1970. Playing as a guard for the UMass Minutemen, Pitino would go on to have a respectable four-year college career though Pitino was determined to go into coaching straightaway.
EARLY COACHING DAYS
After graduating from UMass in 1974, Pitino went straight into coaching as a graduate assistant for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors basketball team at the University of Hawaii. In 1975, Pitino was named as a full-time assistant coach to Bruce O’Neil, but after a poor start to the season, Pitino replaced O’Neil as interim head coach for the Rainbow Warriors final six games of the season – Pitino would steer the team to a 2-4 finish to the 1975/1976 season.
Pitino’s tenure at the University of Hawaii would end in 1976, though it didn’t take long for him to land his next coaching gig. In fact, it was at Syracuse University that Pitino would find the spotlight as legendary Orangemen head coach, Jim Boeheim, made Pitino his very first assistant coach hire in 1976.
FIRST HEAD COACHING JOB
After two seasons under Boeheim at Syracuse, Pitino landed his first head coaching job in 1978 when he was appointed head coach at Boston University. Taking the helm of a basketball program that had won just 17 games in the two previous seasons to his arrival, Pitino had an immediate impact with the Terriers. in what would be his fifth and final year at the school, Pitino helped the school end a 24-year wait when he steered his side to the 1983 iteration of the NCAA tournament.
Pitino’s success with Boston University would earn him an assistant coaching with the New York Knicks under Hubie Brown in 1983, though he would soon return to college basketball when he took up the helm at Providence College in 1985.
NEW BEGINNINGS IN NEW YORK
Pitino would then get a crack at his first head coaching job in the NBA when he returned to the New York Knicks, this time as head coach of the club. In just two seasons, he turned a Knicks franchise into a division winner for the first time in nearly two decades.
Despite the success on the NBA scene, it was clear that Pitino still missed the college game and after just two years, and a complicated courting process by the University of Kentucky, Pitino was back on the college scene in 1989.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL
As Kentucky coped with the aftermath of a major scandal brought on by former head coach Eddie Sutton, Pitino signed a seven-year deal to coach the Wildcats; even though fallout of the scandal would not allow the school to participate in the postseason for two seasons.
Pitino returned prestige and respect to the Wildcats program as he helped steer the team back to the NCAA tournament in 1992 before making his first Final Four appearance with Kentucky in 1993. There would be even more glory for Kentucky just three years later as Pitino was at the helm when the Wildcats captured top honours in the 1996 iteration of the tournament.
As reigning champions, Kentucky came close to repeating the feat in 1997 but the Wildcats would miss out on a second straight title when they lost to Arizona in the 1998 National Championship Game in Indianapolis, Indiana.
NOT LIVING UP TO THE HYPE
Those two trips to the NCAA Championship Game would spell the end of Pitino’s time with Kentucky as Pitino tried to take care of some unfinished business in the NBA. It would be the storied franchise that is the Boston Celtics that would bring Pitino back to the NBA as the now desperate club gave Pitino the keys to the franchise in hope for a massive turnaround to their misfortunes.
Despite the hype surrounding his arrival, Pitino wouldn’t live up to expectations with the Celtics even if he was afforded plenty of time to help set the historic franchise back on track. Pitino’s four-year stint with the Celtics would end in 2001 after racking up a losing record of 102-146.
BACK TO KENTUCKY… WITH LOUISVILLE
After a disastrous four years in Boston, Pitino would make a return to college basketball in Kentucky in 2001 though he would instead sign with the University of Louisville – geographic rivals to his former employers the University of Kentucky.
Pitino would go on to spend 16 seasons at Louisville, a tenure that would include a National Championship in 2013 as Louisville captured their third title in school history. That title would later be vacated after an FBI probe determined Pitino and staff violated several NCAA rules associated with recruiting.
Pitino was subsequently fired from Louisville 2017 and had yet been able to find a job at either level of basketball in the United States prior to taking the job with Panathinaikos.
WHAT PANATHINAIKOS CAN EXPECT
Pitino has found success nearly everywhere he has coached, though the places he has been unsuccessful are few and far between. Considering the situation at Panathinaikos at the time of his appointment, the club are certainly underperforming in the EuroLeague though the club’s form in the Basket League suggests the club have the ability.
Pitino has always believed in a positive attitude to complement his coaching, which could help Panathinaikos’ players cope with the pressure that seems to be on the team due to the club’s lofty expectations.
Considering Pitino has had total control at nearly every head coaching job he has held, the relationship between Pitino and Panathinaikos owner Dimitris Giannakopoulos will be interesting to watch. There is also the concern that Pitino sees Panathinaikos as an audition for a different coaching opportunity as the brevity of his contract seems to suggest.
Nevertheless, Panathinaikos have installed an experienced bench boss who is certainly motivated and thankful to have another chance at doing something he is passionate about.