Column: Maybe the best week a coach ever had

Associated Press  |  Last updated April 09, 2013
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Someday soon, Rick Pitino is going to have to explain the tattoo to his grandkids. But first, he's going to tell them the story of how getting into the Hall of Fame might have been only the second best thing that happened to him on a serendipitous Monday in April. Because barely 12 hours after Pitino became a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in sports, he did something no college basketball coach had ever done. He won a second national championship as Louisville beat Michigan 82-76, a victory that made him the only coach to take two different schools to the top of the heap. It came 17 years after Pitino's 1996 Kentucky team, a squad loaded with nine future pros, won in a walkover. This team was less about pure talent and more about grit. Their story begins with Luke Hancock, who recovered from a devastating shoulder injury and made all five of his 3-point attempts to earn the final game's most outstanding player. In what was only its latest display of unity, the team rallied around Kevin Ware, whose season ended 10 days with a gruesome broken leg as he came down at the edge of the court trying to block a shot in last weekend's regional final. Ware was the first guard off the bench and his absence put more pressure on starting guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who already log plenty of minutes making Louisville's press so effective. ''Probably the 13 toughest guys I ever coached,'' Pitino said afterward. Now, we'll find out if the coach is as tough as his guys. As payback for the title, Pitino promised to commemorate their tenacity by getting a tattoo. ''They said if you win the national championship, coach, you are getting a tattoo. I said, `Hell yeah,''' the 60 year-old coach laughed. ''I'm getting a tattoo. I owe them.'' And there's no chance they'll forgive the debt. ''I told some reporters he should get a lower back tattoo. He said, `Does it sting?' I said, `I don't know, I don't have any tattoos,''' said Siva, who is heavily inked. ''I don't have any tattoos, either,'' Hancock chimed in. ''But we have a couple ideas. I don't think he knew what he was getting into when he signed up for that one.'' Frankly, deciding which of the events of the last week of Pitino's life to etch into his skin won't be easy. He's on such a run at the moment that you'd be tempted to tell him to rush out and bet on a horse. But hold that thought, because Pitino has already done that - and naturally, his horse won that race, too. Just last Saturday, a thoroughbred he owns by the name of Goldencents captured the Santa Anita Derby, one of the most important prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby. And just a few days before that, his son, Richard, moved into the top flight of his father's profession, leaving Florida International to take over at Minnesota. So when Pitino blinked beneath the confetti splashing down from the roof of the Georgia Dome and said, ''I've had the greatest life,'' you got the sense he wasn't kidding. ''I knew this game would be a great game. Two great offensive teams doing battle. Two great backcourts, great front courts, great talent. I was so happy to see that because I knew it would be a great game. Didn't know we'd win,'' he said, ''but I knew it would be a great game.'' This latest stretch, like so much of what Pitino accomplished, wasn't about luck or simply finding great players. It was Pitino's ability to knit this group together into a relentless defensive unit, to convince them the only way to run opponents ragged was to run themselves ragged first. If you want to know how successful a salesman he is at selling the team concept, ask Ware. ''You would think we all came out of the same womb,'' he said. Ware's absence meant everybody had to log more minutes, but their commitment never wavered. Louisville's constant-motion defense Monday night enabled the Cardinals to crawl back from 12 points down in the first half against the Wolverines, one of the best offensive teams in the game. That was after Louisville came back from 12 down against Wichita State in the semifinal just two nights ago. But they've been doing that to plenty of opponents this season, closing deficits of 10 points or more an incredible seven times in all. ''It's just amazing,'' Siva said. ''Kevin was playing such a big part. For him to go down and everyone to rally around him turned out to be a blessing.'' But only one of many in a week that Pitino will never forget. Just in case he does, well, there's always going to be that tattoo to remind him. --- Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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