University of Louisville

Cheer him or jeer him, Pitino's back in town

Do you call him Benedict Rick or Traitor Rick?

Have you ever told or laughed at a joke that involves Rick Pitino and Porcini, the unfortunately named restaurant where the University of Louisville coach had his extramarital tryst?

If the Jeopardy category were "reviled former University of Kentucky basketball coaches," would only one name spring to mind?

Then you should just get your catharsis over with right now, before the UK-U of L game starts and you're tempted to slip the boundaries of civil fan discourse.

"I've always been a fan of Rick Pitino," says Jerry Walls, a senior research fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame and editor of the book Basketball and Philosophy. "You want them (Louisville) to lose for sure, but the minute bragging rights becomes genuine contempt ... you're taking the fun out of it. If people are celebrating the occasion to have more vitriol over Pitino over that, you have demoralized the sport, you have made it something low and base."

So put down the Sharpie with which you are making that insulting sign to take to Saturday's UK-U of L game. Stop muttering about Pitino and his "flaming britches," a reference to the taunt "liar, liar, pants on fire," a popular line when Pitino initially said in 1997 that he would not leave UK, and then promptly left UK. Stop writing incendiary chants and prepping your bass tones to boo the flamboyant basketball coach/author/motivational speaker.

What you have to understand, says Kentucky.com "Armchair Quarterback" blogger Steve Tressler, is that there is a fan dichotomy: "UK fans" and "Kentucky fans."

"Kentucky fans" will cheer on any college team within the commonwealth but give their main allegiance to the University of Kentucky: They are generous and Kentucky-holistic in their preferences. "UK fans" have as their identifying motif the bleeding-blue mantra. For them, it's on, on, U of K, and universities just a whiff away from Indiana, coached by a man who ditched his coaching job at UK, are simply not going to feel their love.

Herewith, one of those kindly expansive "Kentucky fans": Matt Barack, a first lieutenant in the National Guard, says that he won't cheer against Louisville unless Louisville is playing UK: "I root for the state itself."

He's sympathetic with the choices Pitino made — after all, Barack says, how many among us would turn down the chance to make the leap from college coaching to coaching a professional basketball team?

"Animosity?" Barack says. "No. He's doing what we all dream."

Tressler says a lot of the feeling that Pitino was a traitor to Big Blue Nation was cured "when we started kicking his butt back. When we realized that we could beat Rick Pitino, the head coach of Louisville, on the basketball floor, a lot of that feeling started to fade away."

Reasons abound to be civil, even to a coach whose Web site suggests a $25 donation to the Daniel Pitino Foundation — named for the coach's late son — in order to obtain the coach's autograph.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari, a sort of untarnished Pitino 2.0 in fans' minds, is making a project out of extending the UK basketball franchise to Louisville. Plus, Kentucky's new basketball coach has said he will not tolerate rudeness to the Rickster.

C.M. Newton, UK's former athletic director and a former coach at Transylvania University, the University of Alabama and Vanderbilt University, said that he expects the atmosphere in Rupp Arena for the UK-U of L matchup to be "placid. ... UK fans will be supportive of UK and not spend their time trying to berate Louisville."

Newton said the most rowdy fans in his coaching career were involved in post-game dustups between the liberal arts-steeped fans of Transylvania University and Georgetown College during the mid-1950s: "They'd come to see the fight when we played Georgetown rather than the game."

Newton says that some UK fans have not forgiven Pitino for coming to coach at Louisville after he left the Boston Celtics. But, says Newton, "We should just be grateful for the great eight years he gave us. Without Pitino, this program wouldn't be where it is today."

That's echoed by former UK coach Joe B. Hall. But Hall, who coached at UK for 13 years, acknowledges that fan sentiment is tough to gauge: "That's something that you can't put your finger on. The mood of the fans is something that is generated within their own minds. You cannot influence it, and you cannot predict it. ... There's a wide range of deviousness, or mischief, or whatever that can spread through a crowd like that."

In his 1991 book, Lead to Succeed, written in those halcyon days when Pitino was master of all he surveyed, the coach wrote that "Stirring passion is crucial, for the simple reason that leaders without passion have problems."

No problems there: Pitino has a way of stirring up passionate responses throughout Kentucky. How vividly such opinions are expressed will be seen at Saturday's game.

For his part, Hall recalls once being hit by a lemon at a game in Knoxville. He professes disappointment at the fan who threw it.

In Tennessee, he said, an orange would have been more appropriate.

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