University of Louisville

Mark Story: If baseball rules applied, would Pitino go into Basketball Hall of Fame in UK cap or U of L?

Louisville coach Rick Pitino hoisted the championship trophy on Monday night. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Louisville coach Rick Pitino hoisted the championship trophy on Monday night. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

When a player is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, they appear on their plaque wearing a baseball cap of a team for which they played. In the free-agent era when, say, a Roberto Alomar played for seven teams and a Bert Blyleven played for five, there is often ample curiosity over which team's cap a player will appear in for posterity in Cooperstown.

According to an article on the Baseball Hall of Fame website, the choice of cap is from the team where a player "made his most indelible mark."

That got me to thinking about Rick Pitino.

If the Basketball Hall of Fame had a ritual similar to baseball's (it doesn't) and recent hoops selection Pitino had to be assigned a "cap" for his plaque based on where he "made his most indelible mark," what should be the choice for the only coach who has won an NCAA men's basketball championship at two different schools?

Would Pitino more properly go into the Springfield, Mass., hall in a Kentucky cap or a Louisville one?

Case for Kentucky

Pitino came to UK when the program was, arguably, at its all-time low.

In the summer of 1989, Kentucky was coming off a 13-19 season. Its coach, Eddie Sutton, had resigned under pressure amid a major cheating scandal. The NCAA had dropped the hammer on UK basketball, giving the Cats a two-year NCAA Tournament ban and only three scholarships for new players in the next two seasons.

Summing up the national view of UK basketball, Sports Illustrated ran its Kentucky's Shame cover.

By the time Pitino gave up the head coaching job of the New York Knicks, attrition had decimated the Kentucky roster and UK was down to eight scholarship players, none of whom stood taller than 6-foot-7 nor had ever averaged double figures in points as a college player.

At the time, many debated whether Kentucky basketball would ever fully recover.

Instead, Pitino presided over a modern Wildcats golden age. In the coach's eight-year run, UK won 81.4 percent of its games. Take out the over-achieving 14-14 record compiled in the coach's first season, and Pitino's winning percentage was 85.7 percent in Lexington.

At Kentucky, Pitino teams were eligible for the NCAA Tournament in six seasons. Over those years, the coach went 22-5 in the Big Dance with five trips to the round of eight, three Final Fours and the 1996 NCAA championship.

What was most impressive about Pitino's coaching tenure at UK was the diversity of coaching skill he showed.

His early UK teams, limited in numbers and talent, were underdogs cajoled to unexpected heights. Pitino's uber-talented 1996 title team — featuring nine future NBA players — epitomized a coach able to get gifted players to sublimate individual goals for a greater good.

Many coaches are good as an underdog; others are good at handling talent. Before he left for the Boston Celtics, Pitino at Kentucky proved to be one of the best coaches in the country at each.

Case for Louisville

Having failed in his stint as Celtics head man, Pitino came to Louisville when that program, too, was in need of a restoration. In the final four seasons (1997-2001) of Denny Crum's overall stellar run as Cardinals head man, U of L's record was 62-62 with two losing seasons and no NCAA Tournament victories.

Pitino took over with U of L fans dreaming, and UK backers fearing, that the coach would construct another golden age as he had done at Kentucky.

It's taken 12 years, but Pitino has now matched at Louisville his UK benchmarks in terms of major NCAA Tournament milestones. At U of L, too, Ricky P. now has five elite eights, three Final Fours and an NCAA championship.

With back-to-back Final Four trips and this year's national title run, Pitino now has 22 NCAA tourney victories at both UK and U of L (22-9).

However, in years in which Kentucky was eligible for post-season play under Pitino, only once (1994) did the coach fail to get the Cats out of the first weekend of the NCAA tourney. Out of his 12 years as Louisville head man, seven times the Cardinals have either been in the NIT (twice) or eliminated on the first weekend of NCAA play.

Overall, his winning percentage at U of L (73.6) is well off his blistering UK pace.

The verdict

If Pitino had to pick a hat in which to go into the Basketball Hall of Fame, I think he'd pick Louisville — and on the basis of sentiment, he should.

He's now coached at The 'Ville four years longer than he did at UK.

More than that, while working at Louisville, Pitino has weathered the tragic deaths of two brothers-in-law. It's at Louisville where Pitino had two different stints with his son, Richard, working with him as an assistant. It was the U of L administration that stuck by the coach through an embarrassing personal scandal.

It just feels like more of Pitino's major life events have occurred at Louisville.

However, if an objective board were choosing a cap for Pitino based on where he "made his most indelible mark" on basketball, I don't think that call would be especially close.

Under that scenario, Rick Pitino would go into the Basketball Hall of Fame wearing the cap of the Kentucky Wildcats.

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