Pitino, Kentucky take high road on Hall of Fame
To the segment of University of Kentucky fans marinating in unresolved and unlimited bitterness toward the current coach at the University of Louisville, we have this jarring seven-word update:
Rick Pitino, Big Blue Hall of Famer.
It's going to happen. On the night of Sept. 9, Pitino plans to be in Lexington to attend an induction dinner into Kentucky's brand-new athletic Hall of Fame.
The offer was extended in writing earlier this summer to all Kentucky football and basketball players and coaches who have a retired jersey or banner in Rupp Arena and Commonwealth Stadium. They are official, first-ballot Hall inductees, and the honor of their presence is requested to seal the deal.
That includes the guy now coaching Kentucky's closest and most contentious rival.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart followed up with a personal call to Pitino this week -- just to let him know that the original invitation was sincere, not a grudging necessity demanded by the banner with Pitino's name hanging in the Rupp rafters. Pitino told Barnhart that as long as his recruiting schedule permits -- it's the first day coaches can be on the road during a two-week period, but he doesn't anticipate a conflict -- he will be there.
"I thought it was very nice," Pitino said. "I appreciated the invite."
Hard-core fans on both sides will undoubtedly watch to see whether the Earth splits open and swallows the entire unholy alliance. To those folks, this is as inconceivable as Limbaugh and Franken linking arms in song -- but then again, so was the idea of Pitino as the Cardinals' coach to begin with.
But perhaps they can see it as something else.
A glimmer of détente in an ongoing duel to the death. A signal that the Cold War can thaw a bit. An opportunity to see the rivalry as athletic competition, not a moral referendum on which side is Good and which is Evil.
Grace is possible on the front lines of the 24/7/365 rivalry. This win-win act of bipartisan class shows us that much.
It should be understood that both sides had to summon some fortitude to take this step.
Barnhart, under considerable heat in the commonwealth for the sorry state of his football program -- especially in unavoidable comparison to the blossoming power at Louisville -- did not have to take the extra diplomatic step of a personal call to Pitino. He could simply have let the form letter stand, and left the ball bouncing in the coach's court.
Pitino, who was stung to his core by the barbarous reception in his first trip back to Rupp as coach of the Cardinals, could have used the recruiting excuse as an automatic out. After reading signs comparing you to American Taliban man John Walker Lindh and insulting your wife, Joanne, he didn't have to meet Barnhart on the high road.
But instead of looking for reasons to hang back, both stepped forward. Both will be better for it -- and if the fans are paying attention, they will be, too.
For Barnhart, this is a chance to move the current focus of the rivalry off the football series, where he simply can't win. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has made all the right moves and right hires to propel his program to top-15 stature. Barnhart, meanwhile, inherited a program crippled by probation, watched his first coach, Guy Morriss, leave for big bucks at Baylor after a miraculous 7-5 season, whiffed on a succession of successors and wound up with retiree Rich Brooks, who has had an abysmal first two years.
It only got worse for Barnhart when it was announced this month that the Wildcats opted to move their home games in the Kentucky-Louisville football series in 2007 and '09 off the season-opening date, to the third weekend of September. Louisville was outraged at the move, which jeopardized the game's traditional spot on ESPN and diminished its stature. The season-opening game had been popular with both fan bases and was viewed as vital to raising a basketball state's interest in football.
Which was part of the problem. The all-summer buildup to this game resulted in stakes that were higher than Kentucky could handle.
The Wildcats have lost four of the last five in the rivalry and are a 22-point underdog this year -- at home. Moving the game off opening weekend was tacit admission that the losses were too damaging, that the Wildcats hadn't lived up to their end of the rivalry and they could not compete with the school Kentucky fans condescendingly call "Little Brother."
Now, a little more than two weeks away from the game, there is something else to talk about. Put "Pitino" and "Kentucky" in the same sentence, and you have an automatic hot topic.
For Pitino, this will be a chance to remind a few more UK fans that they share a lot of pleasant memories. Not that he's expecting to win over those deepest denizens of the Big Blue bunker.
"I think the same people that have a problem will still have a problem," he said. "And the same ones who don't, won't."
Among those who will be happy to see him next month are the heroes of the teams he coached to great glory during 1989-97, including one national title and three Final Fours. John Pelphrey and Richie Farmer, members of his most beloved Kentucky team, The Unforgettables, have called Pitino to ask if he is coming to the ceremony. The chance to share another moment with those players shouldn't be missed on account of current school affiliation.
"I coached eight years at Kentucky and feel real good about what we accomplished," Pitino said. "I've said this many times: leaving Kentucky was the wrong decision, but coming back to Kentucky was the right decision."
This invitation and acceptance were the right decisions, too. Perhaps now, the unforgiving faction of Kentucky fans can come to grips with that. Rick Pitino is a Big Blue Hall of Famer, even wearing red.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.