John Clay

John Calipari is right: Rick Pitino should hear cheers again in Rupp Arena

Rick Pitino should have come.

And he should have been cheered.

The former Kentucky coach didn’t show up this weekend, not that anyone expected him to make an appearance when his 1992-93 Final Four team held its 25-year reunion and was recognized at halftime of UK’s 88-61 win over Utah on Saturday night in Rupp Arena.

Pitino did acknowledge the event, tweeting Saturday morning, “Congrats 93 UK team! Proud of you guys and love the hell out of you. Thx Cal for reaching out. Much appreciated.”

And, yes, Calipari, did in fact encouraging his supposed archenemy to make the trip back to Lexington, to let bygones be bygones, to enjoy his former players and their accomplishments as a team.

So why didn’t Pitino come?

“He was with family and he had things going on,” Calipari said. “I just said, ‘Look, you need to get up here. This will be respectful here. What that program did to change this back, we should recognize that. (The fans) may be mad. ‘He went to coach at Louisville.’ So what? When he was here, when we needed this program on a different track, he put it (there) and that group. I told (the ’92-93 team), ‘You guys got this thing back going. You guys did.’”

You know as well as I do the real reason Pitino did not come back, even this time when he didn’t have the excuse that he had a team to coach or a game to play or a recruit to watch. You know as well as I do that he didn’t come for fear of what the reaction would be from some of the same fans who have never forgiven him for coaching Louisville.

It shouldn’t be that way.

“One of the happiest things for me is when I see how Coach Hall is treated here,” Calipari said, speaking of former UK coach Joe B. Hall. “He’s treated like royalty. I love it when he goes out on the court. I love to see him in practice. I love how our fans treat him. My guess is back in the day they probably weren’t as friendly.”

Good guess. Back in the day, even when Hall was going to three Final Fours, two national championship games and winning the school’s first NCAA title in 17 years, there was a large faction who could not wait to see Joe B. Gone.

Pitino’s is a different case, of course. Hall was a keeper of the flame — a Kentuckian who took on the unenviable task of following a legend in Adolph Rupp — who after he retired and never coached or lived anywhere else. After three Final Fours, two title games and an NCAA title, Pitino left for the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and after failing there returned to college to coach at the one place Big Blue Nation did not want him to coach.

That’s over now. No need to go into all the details. Whatever you might think of the post-Kentucky Pitino, you can’t erase the job he did here, taking a program that was on probation and returning it not just to excellence, but to prominence.

At the recent funeral of George Herbert Walker Bush, his friend and former senator Alan Simpson marveled at how the 41st president “never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”

It might still be too soon, of course, but one day it should happen. One day, Rick Pitino should be standing on the floor of Rupp Arena, listening to the cheers of appreciative Kentucky fans.

“What Rick did, like I said, he deserves to get the respect from what he did here,” Calipari said. “And I think our fans here would be great. I think they’re by all that. He may not think that. I’m convinced that if he came back, the fans would be great to him.”

And they should.

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