Rick Pitino has experienced plenty of ups and downs in his 31 years as a college head coach. He has led seven different teams to the Final Four and won National Championships at Kentucky in 1996 and with Louisville in 2013. This season, with his program under investigation by the school and the NCAA, after an 18-4 start and just four days after beating No. 2 North Carolina, UofL self-imposed a postseason ban. There will be no ACC tournament or NCAA tournament for a team many figured had a shot at a deep March run.
How much of an emotional roller coaster has this season been?
I think itâ€™s been the whole season. I came back from Puerto Rico, coming off an Elite Eight season and calling Ralph Willard out of retirement, saying Iâ€™ve got the most special group Iâ€™ve ever put together. Come coach a year, and then this breaks. The book breaks and sets everything in total disarray. Trying to find out if anybody knows anything. Nobody knows anything.
So what was the approach from there?
Letâ€™s move on. Letâ€™s forget about it. Letâ€™s let the NCAA deal with it. Letâ€™s let the university deal with it. Letâ€™s coach basketball, and now the team lifts you up, lifts you up, lifts you up. Then after the Virginia game, I said, â€˜Okay, you had the first adversity of the season. Now how do you get up? How do you get up and fight?â€™ You judge a manâ€™s character by how he gets up and fights not by how he lays down, and they got up in a big way and played with one day prep as brilliant a game as any team. Iâ€™ve coached here in terms of strategy. Go on and win it, and then you get hit over the head again with another sledge hammer. The range of emotions is sometimes very wide, but it is painful. You must move on.
What was the initial reaction from the players?
They were devastated, but I tried to tell them, â€œYouâ€™re going to go through things in life, the passing of your mom, the passing of your dad. God willing you never lose a sibling.â€ I said, â€œThereâ€™s going to be things in your life that are really going to be traumatic and worse than this. Understand, this isÂ the game of basketball, this hurts, itâ€™s painful. Youâ€™ve dedicated your lives to making this a great season and you deserved to play in the NCAA and have a shot at winning a championship. Youâ€™ll have worse things in your life, so let this be a lesson of getting through it in a positive way and performing for your fans.â€
You tell the players that. Are you having to tell yourself that too?
With me, Iâ€™ve been through so much in my life that I wonâ€™t say itâ€™s second nature. Iâ€™ve been through the other extremes of losing loved ones in traumatic experiences. Itâ€™s not the losing of loved ones â€“ itâ€™s what you must do with all the people that have been left without dadâ€™s, and now you must lift them up and watch their lives develop and take care of them. Your mind is consumed with just helping others. I donâ€™t have time to concern myself with what I think; my only responsibility right now it to uplift those players, uplift the fans and focus in on ending this season in great way.
Was the timing of this even beyond your worst nightmare?
It could have happened a month ago, but it wasnâ€™t going to happen at 18-4. Were there mistakes made? Yes. The biggest mistake was not having Tom Jurich on that committee. Itâ€™s like going into war without Patton. Youâ€™ve got your general. Youâ€™re going to war, and the smartest man in the art of war is Tom Jurich. And you donâ€™t have him on the committee. Now you give him partial information and heâ€™s got to make a decision.
Tom is the leader. We have to respect his decision as the leader because heâ€™s going to do the best for the university. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™ve got to look at.
Had your confidence been building in this team?
Not since 1987. This is one of most special groups that Iâ€™ve ever encountered as a basketball coach. Thatâ€™s why it hurts so much more. They deserved the right. All Iâ€™ve talked about from Puerto Rico on is this team. This is a train ride, and youâ€™re going through some beautiful terrain. Youâ€™re going to go through some areas that are not beautiful, and youâ€™re going to have to get through those areas. Then, after that, North Carolina. I told them in the locker room that weâ€™ve been talking about this journey to get into the tournament, and now youâ€™ve proven yourself worthy. Letâ€™s go with this whole thing, and the locker room was obviously very excited. Then in 48 hours, you are at the zenith and then it goes to its nadir. It canâ€™t get any worse.
What did you think when you heard the comments that night from Damion and Trey?
Theyâ€™re pretty special. We got very lucky, itâ€™s not the fifth year senior â€“ itâ€™s these two guys. Theyâ€™ve been great leaders, and thatâ€™s why it just hurts so much. Watching them talk about it gets me sick inside.
What would you like to see from the fans in the last two home games?
I think thereâ€™s a range of emotionsÂ that go through Cardinal fans right now. That being said, these guys deserve, more than deserve, our support and for us to rally behind them. This is it for them. They came here to play in the NCAA tournament.
What were the major factors in deciding not bring back Mangok Mathiang this season?
What happens is if youâ€™re not in great basketball shape, you donâ€™t necessarily injure your foot, you injure another part of your anatomy because your body is not in shape. I donâ€™t see the sense. If the NCAA was there, we would definitely bring him back. VT