Any pleasure the Big Blue Nation got Wednesday from Louisville announcing the departure of Rick Pitino as coach did not include Deron Feldhaus.
“Man, I hate it,” said Feldhaus, who played for Pitino-coached Kentucky teams 25 years ago. “I have nothing but good memories of Coach Pitino. He treated me great. I loved every minute of being a part of playing for Coach Pitino.
“But I hate everything that has gone on with him over the years.”
The great highs and lows of Pitino’s life include a series of controversies that plagued his final seasons as Louisville coach. A sexual indiscretion. Prostitutes used in recruiting and then Tuesday’s blockbuster report of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe that resulted in charges of fraud and corruption in college basketball.
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“The whole thing makes me sick,” said Marta McMackin, the secretary to four UK coaches, including Pitino.
The Shakespearean tragedy of Pitino’s life — which included the death of an infant son, the death of his brother-in-law in the attacks of 9/11 and now an embarrassing end to a celebrated coaching career — filled McMackin’s thoughts.
“They’re good, solid people,” she said of Pitino and his extended family. “They had so much tragedy in their lives. And it just breaks my heart. You wonder why bad things happen to good people. I just don’t know. It just really upsets me.”
Cameron Mills, who played on the Pitino-coached Kentucky team that won the 1996 national championship, said he believed many ex-Cats shared McMackin’s feelings.
“I doubt there’s a player who ever played for him who’s happy about this,” Mills said.
Pitino became Kentucky coach at arguably the program’s nadir. He arrived in 1989 with UK having been put on probation for rules violations by the NCAA. No television appearances and no post-season play until the 1991-92 season.
His first season featured a pressing, three-point shooting style that thrilled fans, brought joy to the ultra-serious business of UK basketball and a relief that Kentucky could be Kentucky again. In its first season of postseason eligibility, Kentucky advanced to the 1992 East Region finals (losing on the famous Christian Laettner shot). The next year UK reached the Final Four, and three years after that won the NCAA Tournament.
Pitino not only restored Kentucky basketball, he added a chapter to the program’s storybook lore. Leftover players from an NCAA scandal deemed not good enough to transfer became The Unforgettables: John Pelphrey, Sean Woods, Richie Farmer and Feldhaus.
“I will be forever grateful to him for the job he did at UK,” said Jim Host, a former athlete at the school who held the broadcast rights to Wildcats games for many years. “I’m just distressed over what’s happened at U of L.”
Of Pitino, Host said, “He’ll go down in my memory as the guy who saved the program.”
Pitino is a member of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame. A jersey is retired in his name in the Rupp Arena rafters.
Feldhaus remembered Pitino as a masterful game coach.
“When it comes to X’s and O’s, I don’t think there’s anybody better,” Feldhaus said. “I hate for his career to end this way, if it comes down this way. I feel for him, I really do, because I know he loves to win. And he loves his job. He loves coaching.”
Delk, another member of the 1996 national championship team, credited Pitino for transforming “a small-town guy” into an NBA player.
“Great motivator, mentor and became a friend,” Delk said. “Somebody who prepared me for the next level. He taught us how to become men.”
Mills recalled this process being a test of fire.
“Classes kind of became a respite,” Mills said. “Class was peace.”
Twenty years later, Mills expressed gratitude for Pitino’s tough love.
“He coached me like I was an All-American,” Mills said. “That’s what makes him such a great coach. He expects you to be as good as an All-American. That’s what ‘The Unforgettables’ were. He expected them to be All-Americans.”