Beards, Fist-Bumps and Wins

With all due respect to Louisville’s dominance of the bottom half of the AAC or its upcoming showdown with Cincinnati, I think it’s safe to say that the biggest mid-February story around these parts has become un-groomed facial hair.

More specifically, the story is the UofL basketball team’s collective agreement not to shave again until their next loss.  It’s an idea that came from the top of the food chain last week.

“We all said, ‘Let’s have some fun. Let’s grow beards until we lose,’” Rick Pitino said following the team’s win over Temple on Valentine’s Day. “It’s the first time in my life that I’m trying to grow a beard, and it’s the first time I’ve looked in the mirror and seen multifaceted hair coming in, different colors. We want to have some fun right now, so we’re going to do that and hopefully we can get on a little streak and grow some full beards.”

The “playoff beard” isn’t exactly a new concept (the team even said last night that they got the idea from the Red Sox), but the dream of Pitino, the players and a large portion of the fan base all sporting hideous, un-manicured scruff at an NCAA Tournament game in six weeks is still pretty much the best vision ever.

The bigger thing, I think, is that this could galvanize the team in the same way that Pitino’s tattoo promise did a season ago. It certainly worked out well for that group, and I like that Pitino and his staff are going back and at least trying something similar. The “beard streak” itself is secondary to the fact that the entire team understands that there’s a shared goal not to lose from this point forward. Of course that would be the goal regardless, but when there’s a “deal” or “contract” that’s shared publicly like this, it changes things a bit.

The players have been just as turned off as the fans have by this long stretch of time off and games against bad teams from the bottom half of the AAC, so this is coming at a perfect time. Everyone’s excited and everyone’s thinking big again as the Cards head into a final stretch of the season that, all things considered, is probably going to be more difficult than the final seven games of last year’s regular season.

The most amazing thing about all of this isn’t that Rick Pitino is participating, it’s that it was his idea. He’s not just agreeing to sport a hideous (let’s be honest) week-old beard for the rest of the world to see because he lost a bet or something, he’s willingly doing this for what he believes to be the betterment of his team.

Forget about the Kentucky Rick Pitino or the Boston Celtics Rick Pitino, I don’t think 2008 Louisville Rick Pitino even considers doing something like this.

When Pitino announced several years ago that he planned to retire after his current contract ran out, it sparked the expectedly unnecessary debates over who should take his place when that time comes (or if it came sooner). My stance at the time was that I hoped we’d go in a direction away from the Pitino-clan, away from the likes of Billy Donovan, Kevin Willard, Richard Pitino, etc. My rationale was this: Pitino thought he was bigger than the program and would always think he was bigger than the program. Basically, Rick Pitino wasn’t a Louisville guy.

Rick Pitino has become the epitome of a Louisville guy.

When I say that, I don’t mean that we should expect to see Pitino donning a red sweater vest at home games in 20 years, or that he’s any less of a New Yorker than he was in 2002 or 2010, it’s just that his actions now fall in line with the motto he created. I don’t think “Louisville First” was a saying Pitino truly believed applied to him when he first made it a brand. I think it was just a pair of words he smashed together to help with recruiting and public perception. That isn’t the case anymore.

Perhaps the best evidence of Rick Pitino’s transformation can be seen just before the beginning of any U of L game these days. Right before the tip, Pitino can be seen walking down the sidelines giving “knuckles” to each one of his players. As recently as a couple of years ago, it was impossible to imagine the biggest name in Louisville sports sauntering down to the business class section of the bench for anything less than a verbal dress down or a better view of the action on the court.

Things have changed.

Outsiders will name being humbled by the off-the-court events of 2009 and 2010 as the foundation for Pitino’s transformation, and I think that’s part of it. I think the support he’s received from the city and the university in the wake of those events has played a role as well. Above all else, though, I think it’s his recent group of players who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the birth of “Louisville Rick.”

Major college basketball isn’t the most wholesome environment America has to offer, so to be winning big with a team filled with guys who are hard-workers, fun to be around and have tremendous character has to be about as rewarding an experience as Pitino has had in his career. And he’s said as much himself.

Watch any one of his press conferences nowadays and the same two things become evident each time: Rick Pitino is busting his backside to get everything he possibly can out of this team, and he’s having an extremely good time doing it. I think that’s sort of the stance Louisville tries to take with regards to all walks of life: work hard, love and respect the people around you, and make sure you’re enjoying it all.

There is one downside all of this: the fact that we missed out on a bearded Gorgui Dieng by one year.