Pitino takes a shot at moving forward
After a nightmare offseason, Louisville's legendary coach attempts to pick up the pieces
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A longtime horse racing fan, Rick Pitino once pulled legendary trainer Nick Zito aside and asked him why horses wear blinkers.
Zito explained how horses aren't human, how some are easily distracted and need help to focus on the path directly in front of them.For a long time, Pitino didn't get it. He does now. "That's me, like the horse,'' the Louisville coach said. "I can't get distracted or worry about everything outside. I owe it to my players to stay focused, so that's what I'm doing. I've got my blinkers on.'' They best be as thick as blackout curtains. As the Cardinals prep for the official start of the season with a three-hour practice session Friday, they roll out the balls with the dark cloud of Pitino's sex scandal still looming. Embroiled in an alleged extortion attempt, Pitino brought information regarding Karen Cunagin Sypher to the FBI. The subsequent investigation revealed that Pitino admitted to a sexual encounter with the woman at a Louisville restaurant and he said he offered her money for health insurance when he learned she was pregnant. Sypher faces charges in federal court of extortion and lying to the FBI, but the case has not yet gone to trial, which means there has been no official closure. The coach said it is behind him -- "It's been over for me for a while,'' he said -- but in some regards, it is just beginning.
Save for a handful of carefully chosen public appearances and three news conferences -- one he called himself -- Pitino has been able to stay out of the public eye.That's about to change.
He will hit New York next week for what could be a brutal meet-the-press encounter at Big East media day and then gets to start the season, where road crowds likely will be merciless, particularly the crew that assembles in Rupp Arena on Jan. 2.The sordid mess already has taken its toll.
Longtime Pitino watchers agree the 57-year-old looks tired and older, worn out by the scandal that put the basketball coach on the pages of People magazine and the links of the TMZ Web site.His once-spotless reputation has taken a monumental hit, his long-revered name sullied by the salacious details. His wife of 33 years, Joanne, a woman he still can recall in vivid detail seeing for the first time when he was a 16-year-old in New York, has had to endure unbearable public embarrassment. For a man who takes immense pride in being perceived the right way, who has written books on how to comport yourself, this has to be a body blow.
"I don't think about [regret],'' he said. "It's done. I can't undo it. It's like an apology. You can ask forgiveness, but it's one thing to be forgiven and another to be contrite. I deal with my personal life in a personal way. What's been discussed with my family stays there.''His agitators view every decision and indecision through the viewfinder of his infidelity. Pitino's decision to not suspend Jerry Smith and Terrence Jennings this week following a fight with police officers became a moratorium on his morality, while his supporters stand stoically beside him. "No, I didn't lose respect for him,'' junior Preston Knowles said. "Everybody makes mistakes. If we talked about all the mistakes I've made, we'd never get up from here. The only thing that matters is you don't bring that into the Yum! Center [the team's practice facility]. His personal life is his personal life. It's not about me, and he didn't make it about me.'' It has been, however, the hot topic for the rest of the commonwealth, overshadowing even the usually all-encompassing Derby talk in May. The details seeped out in a painstakingly incremental process, first on the rumor mill and finally in the news cycle. Every time it seemed to die, something would fan the flames -- Sypher sat down for television interviews or Pitino called his own bizarre news conference to chastise the media. That Louisville's public relations disaster coincided closely with Kentucky's public relations coup -- the hiring of John Calipari -- only fanned the radio waves and message boards. On a good day, the two fan bases have a relationship about as congenial as that between the Montagues and the Capulets. Or in these parts, the Hatfields and the McCoys.
"Going to Kentucky is always terrible,'' Pitino said. "It's never easy, and this will be no different.''With little choice but to survive and move on, Pitino has found his resolve in those blinkers. He is so attuned to not walking through the morass that when he refers to the impending trial, he doesn't even say Sypher's name -- "It's the U.S. district attorney versus this person. I'm just a witness,'' he said. To some people, Pitino probably sounds more ostrich than survivalist -- and to his detractors, more arrogant than intelligent. But as soon as the scandal broke, Pitino made one immediate decision: He wasn't going to quit his job. "Never, not once, did I think about it,'' he said. "It never even crossed my mind. I know that I made a mistake, but I also know the truth. I was never going to quit over this.'' And so to get through it, he decided to go back to the blinkers. No one can be immune to the pain and embarrassment that have come Pitino's way, but he said eight years in the NBA hardened him. Coaching critiques and sex scandals aren't exactly one and the same, but Pitino said the same coping methods apply. When he worked for the Knicks, he stopped reading the New York Post and Daily News. During his disastrous four-year run in Boston, he blocked out even more.
"Those were the days when the blinkers were on and the shades were drawn,'' he said. "I could only see a little bit of the path.''
He claims to have not picked up a Kentucky newspaper in six months, and his staff and associates are abiding by a long-standing rule to not tell him about every story or rumor that comes down the pike.
His players haven't had the same luck. They spent the summer dodging questions, voicemails, text messages and rumors. If they went to the mall or the sub shop, people stopped them. No matter how many times they told family and friends their coach wasn't quitting, they were asked whether the latest rumor that Pitino was resigning was true.
"People would stop me and ask me questions, questions I couldn't answer, or even if I could, questions I wouldn't answer,'' Edgar Sosa said. "I wasn't going to put anything out there. I would just say, 'I don't know. You need to ask other people that.' There was a lot of that this summer for me.''Pitino had only one conversation with his players throughout the ordeal -- in which he assured them he wasn't quitting. That was all they needed to hear. Although their blinkers haven't allowed them to block out all the noise, they have used a similar approach to zero in on what awaits. This season's Cardinals will be trying to replace two NBA draft lottery picks in Earl Clark and Terrence Williams, and a tenacious defender in Andre McGee. They have plenty on their plate as the season dawns, and at the risk of sounding mercenary, the players said Pitino's personal crisis wouldn't and couldn't affect them. "We still have to perform,'' Samardo Samuels said. "We still have to do our job, and he still has to coach. We can't be distracted by any of it. We can't let that stop us. In a way, it really doesn't affect us at all. It has nothing to do with me.'' It will soon, though. Starting Friday, there is no more hiding. Pitino, and by default the Cardinals, will come face to face with their detractors. They will walk into hostile gyms, and face difficult and awkward questions. More than likely at some point during the season, Sypher will go to trial and Pitino will be called as a witness. The blinkers are on.
Now it's time to see whether they work.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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