MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Richard Pitino’s first real memory of March Madness stands as one of the defining moments in college basketball history — and a day that most Kentucky fans have spent 25 years trying to forget.
He was 9 years old in The Spectrum in Philadelphia on March 28, 1992, watching his father Rick coach Kentucky to the brink of the Final Four against defending champion Duke. The Wildcats were 2.1 seconds from the upset when Christian Laettner hit the buzzer beater to top all buzzer beaters .
As the 25th anniversary of that incredible shot approaches, Richard is set to make his NCAA Tournament debut as a head coach with Minnesota.
The boy who spent his childhood following his coaching legend father from arena to arena, tournament to tournament, through triumph and heartbreak, now striking out on his own. It’s almost poetic, unless you’re Pitino.
“No. It’s not a movie,” Pitino said on Tuesday before his fifth-seeded Golden Gophers left for Milwaukee to face 12th-seed Middle Tennessee State in their opening game. “I woke up this morning and I had coffee and I took my daughter to school. We don’t really do that in the real world. There’s no narrator as I’m driving in or anything.”
It was vintage Pitino, as much as a 34-year-old coaching upstart can have a vintage. He has used a keen sense of self-awareness, a willingness to accept responsibility and a sardonic wit to survive a rocky third season on the job. In his fourth season, he was named the Big Ten coach of the year and presided over the biggest single-season turnaround in the country.
“It’s very, very rewarding because we didn’t have a lot of allies,” Pitino told The Associated Press. “That’s normal. You don’t normally have allies when you win eight games.
“But we were able to gain it back just by playing the right way. That more than the wins and losses. Our guys can walk around campus now and be proud to wear Minnesota basketball gear. That’s what college sports are all about.”
The Gophers went 8-23 and 2-16 in the Big Ten last season. Pitino also suspended three players for their role in a sex video that was accidentally posted on social media. The athletic director who hired Pitino was dismissed before that season after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment, and there was a belief on campus that the only thing saving him from getting fired was more than $7 million he was still owed on his contract.
“He had the biggest turnaround in college basketball. But I’m most proud of the way he handled adversity,” said Rick Pitino, whose Louisville Cardinals are a No. 2 seed. “It’s one thing, he’s handled success with humility, but he always kept his head high.”
It wasn’t easy. Minnesota President Eric Kaler offered an unprompted blistering of the men’s basketball program while introducing new athletic director Mark Coyle at a news conference last summer. The Gophers were picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten in preseason polls, and Williams Arena was mostly empty early in the nonconference season.
“For those couple months, when you’re on your island by yourself, it’s just you, your family and your team, you get closer together from it,” Richard Pitino said. “They definitely have had that.”
Pitino organized a series of speakers to address his players on the importance of conducting themselves with dignity off the court, landed Minnesota prep star Amir Coffey, the son of former Gophers standout Richard Coffey, to help bolster his recruiting class and earned the trust of two of the players involved in the sex tape incident so they remained in school.
“I just didn’t want to sit there and act like everything was fine,” Pitino said. “I think I’m a pretty self-aware person. When you win eight games, you have to suspend players, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror first and foremost. And ask yourself, maybe not are you doing something wrong, but are you doing enough?”
The Gophers went 24-9 and 11-7 in the conference this season before beating Michigan State in the conference tournament. Suddenly all the criticism that dogged him last year disappeared, though his players never saw it to begin with.
“He always kept it going without us knowing,” guard Dupree McBrayer said. “That’s why you could tell he’s a players’ coach. He doesn’t want anybody to know except for him. He doesn’t want the team to worry about it.”
Just a couple of miles from campus, a billboard flashes a picture of Pitino and congratulated him for his Big Ten coach of the year award. The guy who many wanted run out of town last year now has people worrying he may leave for another job.
And once again, Pitino is taking that in stride. He learned that from his father, a championship-winning coach at Kentucky and Louisville who flamed out with the Boston Celtics.
And he learned that from himself, watching that showdown with Duke as a little boy. One second, he was celebrating a looming trip to the Final Four. The next, he was crying in disbelief.
At least, he thinks he cried.
“I don’t remember,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m sure I did. I’m sure I did.”
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