If the University of Louisville fields sports teams for another thousand years, the Cardinals are unlikely to ever have another year as triumphant as 2013.
Over one calendar year, U of L teams won the Sugar Bowl, played in the women's basketball NCAA championship game and the baseball College World Series.
Yet for all of Louisville's 2013 success, only one coach led a Cardinals team — the U of L men's basketball squad — to a national championship. Rick Pitino has been chosen the 2013 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sportsman of the Year in a vote of media members from around the commonwealth.
In becoming the 33rd Kentucky Sportsman of the Year, Pitino made history. He is the first person to win the award three times, having earned it twice (1990 and '96) during his stint as Kentucky Wildcats head coach. Pitino is also the first person to win Sportsman of the Year as a representative of both UK and U of L.
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"The whole of Pitino's team was greater than the sum of its parts, which is why it won the NCAA title," wrote Dick Gabriel of WKYT-TV and WLAP radio. "That's the mark of a great coach."
Added Larry Glover of WVLK radio: "After Kentucky's (NCAA) title in 2012, all the pressure was on Pitino, and Rick responded with a title of his own."
The overall strength of U of L's 2013 was on display in the Sportsman of the Year voting. Louisville Athletics Director Tom Jurich finished second and star Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was third.
A record 136 state media members submitted ballots. Of those, 103 voted a Louisville Cardinals figure first. Five U of L representatives finished in the top 10 and nine in the top 25.
Dominique Hawkins, who led Madison Central to the boys' basketball Sweet Sixteen championship, was fourth; golfer Kenny Perry, winner of two Champions Tour majors, finished fifth; and Makayla Epps, who paced Marion County's undefeated girls' hoops state championship, came in sixth.
Jurich actually had more first-place votes (44) than Pitino (38), but the U of L AD was not named on as many ballots (94) as the basketball coach (109). Many who voted for Jurich saw it as a means of recognizing the overall performance of the Louisville athletics department.
"The most important job any manager has is hiring the right people," wrote Drew Deener of Louisville radio station WHBE. "Jurich's hiring of (Charlie) Strong, Pitino, (Jeff) Walz and (Dan) McDonnell all came together in 2013."
Added Jeff Greer of The Courier-Journal: "The leader behind the 'Year of the Cardinal' (as the U of L folks call it), Jurich led his athletics department to unprecedented success across the board."
Pitino's banner 2013 included being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September. The coach's year also included victories in a sport other than basketball. Goldencents, a horse Pitino co-owned, won the Santa Anita Derby and the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. The horse even started in the Kentucky Derby, though he finished 17th.
Several Sportsman of the Year voters noted that Pitino's success came after the coach survived some lean NCAA Tournament years (round of 64 ousters in 2009 and '10) and a period of personal turmoil.
"This laid-back version of Rick Pitino rode the highs and lows of a basketball season he seemed to truly enjoy," wrote Neal Bradley, the Murray State University radio play-by-play announcer. "Given what he has overcome personally, his individual transformation was inspiring."
Pitino coached a Cardinals squad (35-5) led by senior Peyton Siva and juniors Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith to a Big East regular-season co-championship and the conference tournament title. Along the NCAA Tournament path, Pitino and Louisville survived the gruesome leg injury suffered by Cards guard Kevin Ware in the round of eight against Duke.
After the Cardinals beat Wichita State and Michigan in the Final Four to win it all, Pitino made good on a promise he had made to his team and got a tattoo commemorating U of L's national title.
"Unless you are not a fan of back tattoos, it's hard to find anything that went wrong for Pitino this year," wrote Ashley Scoby of The Advocate Messenger in Danville. "He had a dream 2013."
Added Ron Bailey of The Ledger Independent in Maysville: "What can you say? Coach Pitino had a 'Walter Mitty' year."
Rick Pitino is the 2013 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sportsman of the Year.