John Clay

Rick being Rick; Pitino more wrong than right in reunion comments

UK Coach Rick Pitino talks with his team during a time out late in the game
UK Coach Rick Pitino talks with his team during a time out late in the game Lexington Herald-Leader

While members of Kentucky’s 1995-96 national championship basketball team are down in Miami this week, soaking up the sun and having some fun while basking in the glow of their 20-year reunion, their former coach threw some shade.

Appearing on Terry Meiners’ WHAS radio show Monday, Rick Pitino was asked why UK didn’t hold a ceremony last season to honor the champs. As usual, Rick (a) made it all about Rick, and (b) got it only half right.

“You know, Terry, first of all, I know why they’re not honoring — they’ll give you a lot of excuses — but it would hurt, it would distract; me as the Louisville coach would be distracting for all the players. The fans certainly don’t care for me there anymore.”

While on the surface that statement is generally accurate — especially the part about a large section of the UK fan base no longer liking its once-beloved coach — it lacks both context and facts.

For starters, UK did honor the 1995-96 title team just three years ago. Perhaps because it didn’t involve him, Pitino has forgotten that on Feb. 27, 2013, at halftime of the UK-Mississippi State game, members of the ’96 title team were presented championship rings by the school to go along with the rings the team had already received from the NCAA.

My memory is that the players who were able to attend that night appeared touched by the reception and the honor. In fact, at the end of the ceremony, before the team left the floor, former point guard Anthony Epps knelt down at midcourt and kissed the Rupp Arena floor.

Would it have been nice if UK had reassembled those Cats to be honored again last season, two decades after they defeated Syracuse for the school’s sixth national title? Well, yes. According to UK, however, that’s not how these things normally work. More often than not, the team makes the decision to hold a reunion.

“Our program’s rich history means we have many teams worthy of recognition each season,” said UK Athletics in a statement on Tuesday when asked about Pitino’s comments. “Foremost on that list is the 1996 team, one of the greatest in college basketball history. We were pleased to be able to honor that group of Wildcats with specially designed rings three years ago.

“A reunion was not scheduled for the 20-year anniversary of the team’s national championship because we have not historically held reunions for milestone anniversaries, instead scheduling around special occasions like the ring presentation or when a team reaches out about holding a reunion. However, we are currently working to establish protocol for honoring our best teams.”

A reunion was not scheduled for the 20-year anniversary of the team’s national championship because we have not historically held reunions for milestone anniversaries, instead scheduling around special occasions like the ring presentation or when a team reaches out about holding a reunion.

Statement from UK Athletics

Pitino is certainly correct that his presence would be problematic. Truth be told, however, honoring past players and coaches is always a dicey proposition. It’s a situation ready-made to send noses out of joint. Why was X team honored and not Y? Why was that player honored and not another? No good deed goes unpunished.

Certainly, the 1996 team shouldn’t be forgotten, nor has it been. And just because Pitino is now the coach of the archrival up the road, that doesn’t mean the spectacular job he did at UK should be ignored. True, Pitino has often inflamed the situation — flipping the bird to a heckler last year at Rupp being the latest example — but he has also been gracious in words and actions. If you don’t think so, look up his speech at Bill Keightley’s memorial service in 2008.

Here’s my wish: Five years from now, the entire 1995-96 national championship team, complete with the head coach, will be standing on the floor of Rupp Arena on the occasion of the silver anniversary and waving to a grateful crowd. There will be no boos or hisses or even grumbles. All you will hear is cheers. Time will have healed all wounds and bygones will have been bygones.

That’s the way you honor champions.

Rick Pitino college coaching record

Season

School

Record

Conf

Post-season

1979-80

Boston U

21-9

NIT Second Round

1980-81

Boston U

13-14

1981-82

Boston U

19-9

1982-83

Boston U

21-10

1985-86

Providence

17-14

7-9

NIT Semifinals

1986-87

Providence

25-9

10-6

NCAA Final Four

1989-90

Kentucky

14-14

10-8

Ineligible

1990-91

Kentucky

22-6

14-4

Ineligible

1991-92

Kentucky

29-7

12-4

NCAA Elite Eight

1992-93

Kentucky

30-4

13-3

NCAA Final Four

1993-94

Kentucky

27-7

12-4

NCAA Second Round

1994-95

Kentucky

28-5

14-2

NCAA Elite Eight

1995-96

Kentucky

34-2

16-0

NCAA Champions

1996-97

Kentucky

35-5

13-3

NCAA Runner-Up

2001-02

Louisville

19-13

8-8

NIT Second Round

2002-03

Louisville

25-7

11-5

NCAA Second Round

2003-04

Louisville

20-10

9-7

NCAA First Round

2004-05

Louisville

33-5

14-2

NCAA Final Four

2005-06

Louisville

21-13

6-10

NIT Semifinals

2006-07

Louisville

24-10

12-4

NCAA Second Round

2007-08

Louisville

27-9

14-4

NCAA Elite Eight

2008-09

Louisville

31-6

16-2

NCAA Elite Eight

2009-10

Louisville

20-13

11-7

NCAA First Round

2010-11

Louisville

25-10

12-6

NCAA First Round

2011-12

Louisville

30-10

10-8

NCAA Final Four

2012-13

Louisville

35-5

14-4

NCAA Champions

2013-14

Louisville

31-6

15-3

NCAA Sweet 16

2014-15

Louisville

27-9

12-6

NCAA Elite Eight

2015-16

Louisville

23-6

12-4

Ineligible

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