By Michele Brown
Dear Coach Pitino,
I think it’s safe to say that you haven’t had a very smooth time these past few months. Besides having the NCAA breathing down your neck, your school seems to have a laundry list of other issues that go beyond just the athletics department. It has to sting that the university to whom you gave your undying loyalty (seriously, that tattoo isn’t looking like such a great idea these days) is repaying you with one scandal after another.
So I would imagine you were already feeling a little bristly before you arrived at Rupp Arena on December 26 to face your nemesis, John Calipari. Coach Cal winning 7 of the previous 8 meetings with you certainly didn’t help matters. Given all of that, it really shouldn’t have been that surprising when upon your exit from Rupp with loss number 8 to Cal, you flipped off some fans. Skipping the post-game press conference, though — well, let’s just say that was a bad move. That decision, in conjunction with the “hand gesture” made even some of your strongest media supporters take exception.
But what made this bad situation even worse was your subsequent explanations for missing the press conference. First it was planned because, according to you, it was just “too emotional” to participate in any press conference after a UK game. Somehow, though I think you could have contained those emotions just fine had you managed to win the game. You tried to squash this argument by referencing games you lost, but still attended the press conference afterward.
It’s not because we lost a basketball game. It was a terrific — when we lost to Duke (at Kentucky), I always say it was one of the greatest games ever played. So if I wasn’t afraid to meet the press in the most difficult loss of all time. So come on, give me a break with that stuff. If I show up for Duke, I think I can show up for that.
Nice try, Coach, but that wasn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Yes, that was arguably the greatest college game ever played. Yes, a lot was at stake for your team. But you weren’t given a realistic chance of winning that game. And it’s not like you used to coach at Duke and were facing your former team. Of course you attended that press conference. It was a defining moment at that point in time: Kentucky Basketball was back.
The real kicker, though, was when you said this:
When we go into a press conference in a neighborhood like that, I don’t want to hear about the scandal, OK?
Really, Rick? A “neighborhood like that?” This came across as just another barb in a long list of barbs you have directed at the Big Blue Nation over the years. Did you ever once consider the role you played in creating this “neighborhood?” It was one last slap in the face to a fan base that had, at one point in time, respected, adored and absolutely loved you. And you know what? It didn’t have to be this way. You could have still made the same career choices and enjoyed, at least a cordial, if not friendly relationship with the BBN. How could that be? Well, imagine, if you will:
1997 – what if you had simply told the BBN you were keeping your options open about returning to the NBA? Instead, you emphatically declared you weren’t going anywhere and we believed you. After all, we had endured previous rumors of you leaving, each time with you assuring us you were staying at Kentucky. Within days of this declaration, however, the BBN was blindsided by your announcement that you were going to Boston to become the head coach of the Celtics. The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of the BBN was not upset that you left for Boston. We actually expected it to happen sooner rather than later. But what most fans found upsetting was the fact you chose to lie. From that point forward, everything you said became suspect to us.
2001 – what if, when you chose to coach at Louisville, you admitted that this choice was breaking an unwritten rule? After all, one just does not take a position at his former school’s most bitter (and in-state) rival. Was it your ego, your pride, or just delusion that led you to believe this choice would be celebrated by the Big Blue Faithful? Regardless of why you made this decision, you could have softened the blow drastically by simply acknowledging that you understood there was a great rivalry between your former and current schools. Perhaps you could have said you knew that some people would be upset, and understandably so, but that it was the best choice for you personally at that time. Instead, you had the audacity to go on the offensive and say that any UK fans that didn’t support you as U of L’s coach were “small-minded.” I don’t think you could have chosen anything worse to say at that time. That one sentence pretty much sealed your fate as a persona non grata with the BBN.
2015 – Just days before the Kentucky-Louisville game, why couldn’t you have simply said “This rivalry is important to both fan bases.” Was it necessary to launch a verbal dart at the BBN by adding that U of L fans had other things going on in their lives besides basketball? Over the years, you had made subtle digs that were similar in nature. First, it’s simply not true, and secondly, take a long, hard look at your fan base before you criticize others.
Perhaps you think I’m oversimplifying the situation, and there was nothing you could have said that would have changed how Kentucky fans feel about you today. Maybe you believe the narrative that is constantly spewed by some Louisville sports bloggers that Kentucky owes you respect for what you did for our program, thus excusing anything you said or did after that time. The popular theory seems to be if we so much as criticize your program (hello, prostitutes in a dorm?!?), we must have forgotten how you “saved” our program. Again, this is just not true, at least for me. I always appreciated and respected what you did for the University of Kentucky’s basketball program. Would we have recovered from the scandal and subsequent probation in 1989 if you had not taken over the head coach position? Well, while I believe we would have eventually made it back to the top, I have no doubt whatsoever nobody else could have done so as quickly, and as spectacularly as you did. I thought it was absolutely fitting that you had a banner with your name raised to the rafters in Rupp.
But what I really want to know, Rick, is do you believe respect is a two-way street? Can you acknowledge that coaching at Kentucky was a boost to your career as much as it was a saving grace for UK? Would you like to know that there are still some of us that are not rejoicing in your current troubles, nor did we celebrate your personal scandal a few years back? Did you know that every time you make a misstep, there are still some of us that are just saddened? You were once a hero, but now your halo is tarnished, and your integrity may be damaged beyond repair.
Perhaps you summed it up best when you made your comments at that January 1 press conference where you likened your current situation to Joe Paterno:
“The one person I would never question is Joe Paterno. He would be the one guy I would hold above reproach. What did they do? They took a statue away. They probably killed him. … I don’t think I’ve ever met a man with more integrity. … He didn’t know about (the Jerry Sandusky scandal). It was scurrilous what that assistant coach was doing. I believe in Joe Paterno. The way he went out, it breaks your heart.”
That Rick, is my fear for you. You may not have gone out yet, but your exit is looking more and more like it will be a heart breaker. And the saddest thing of all is, it didn’t have to be this way.
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