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Back to school

Pitino leads class of NBA coaches back to college ranks

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Posted: Monday November 05, 2001 12:12 AM
Updated: Wednesday November 14, 2001 12:53 PM
  Rick Pitino Rick Pitino returns to the college ranks in the Bluegrass State, where he coached Kentucky to a national title. Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

By Mark Button, CNNSI.com

People should know where they belong. That goes for coaches, too.

Three basketball veterans -- Rick Pitino, Paul Westpahl and Butch Beard -- figured that out earlier this year and left the NBA to take college basketball head coaching jobs.

Of course, Pitino grabbed all the headlines after he quit his job in January as president and head coach of the Boston Celtics. His tumultous stint featured 3˝ years of high expectations, poor defense and, generally speaking, bad basketball.

Two months and plenty of speculation later, Pitino announced he was taking the Louisville job.

“About a month before I left [the Celtics], I knew I would be coaching college basketball again,” he said. “I just didn't know where or for whom. I didn't know if I'd take a year off or not. I just knew I wouldn't coach professionally again.”

Pitino’s turbulent time in Boston was well chronicled. In short: The team lost. Fans booed. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale weren’t walking through that door.

Then Pitino walked out of it.

He says he is back where he belongs, back where he was happy. Back where he has 352-124 record in 15 seasons.

Pitino's collegiate record
Year  School  Rec. 
1978-79  Boston Univ.  17-9 
1979-80  Boston Univ.  21-9 
1980-81  Boston Univ.  13-14 
1981-82  Boston Univ.  19-9 
1982-83  Boston Univ.  21-10 
1985-86  Providence  17-14 
1986-87  Providence  25-9 
1989-90  Kentucky  14-14 
1990-91  Kentucky  22-6 
1991-92  Kentucky  29-7 
1992-93  Kentucky  30-4 
1993-94  Kentucky  27-7 
1994-95  Kentucky  28-5 
1995-96  Kentucky  34-2* 
1996-97  Kentucky  35-5 
*National Champions
Pitino replaced legendary Louisville coach Denny Crum, who was shown the door after 30 years of service -- the last three of which the Cardinals failed to win 20 games. Now the Louisville faithful hopes Pitino can duplicate his work at in-state rival Kentucky, where he took the program from shambles to an NCAA title in 1996.

Pitino welcomes the challenge.

“I missed how much is at stake with each and every [college] game and how much each means to the community,” he said. “I’m delighted to be back where there’s so much enthusiasm.”

Pitino still is a fan of the NBA -- what he misses about the game he’ll watch on TV, he said -- and he intends on integrating some NBA philosophies at Louisville.

“We’ll run more pick and roll than any other team,” he said. “Every offensive set that we run is a set that NBA teams run. NBA offensive sets are great because you have to get a terrific shot up in 18 seconds.”

Pitino could think of only one disadvantage in leaving the NBA to come back to college.

“Just maybe in the checkbook, that’s all,” he said.

Westpahl’s jump to Pepperdine and the college ranks is quite a bit different than Pitino’s. Westpahl was much more successful in the NBA, having taken the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals in 1993.

The Suns released Westphal 33 games into the 1995-96 season. After taking the rest of that year off, Westphal took a job as an assistant coach for his son Michael’s high school basketball team at Chaparral High School in Phoenix.

“It was refreshing,” Westphal said. “It was nice to be at a level that kind of helped me remember what I liked about basketball in the first place.”

Westphal surfaced in 1998 when he took the head-coaching job for the Seattle SuperSonics during the strike-shorten season. He was fired less than a month into the 2000-01 season.

During his stint in Seattle, Westphal sent his daughter Victoria to Pepperdine. Michael followed and walked on the basketball team.

So when the job opened and Pepperdine called on Westphal, he jumped at the chance to coach his son again, right?


“It almost kept me from taking the job,” Westphal said. “I never wanted to do it. It was wonderful at the high school level because I was an assistant. I didn’t have anything to do with substitutions or playing time.

“Generally coaching your son doesn’t work. You’re either playing him too much and you get criticized for it, or you’re too hard on him. I told myself I’d never do it to save all those problems.”

His son changed Westphal’s mind, though.

Michael Westphal played in only six games last year, scoring a total six points. He told his father, “what’s the difference if I hardly play this year.”

“He told me, ‘If I do earn time, then I know you'll be fair. I know people will be extra hard on me, if that happens I can take it,’” Westphal said.

Westphal left the door open to a return the NBA.

“I never know what the future holds and expect to be here a long time. But if I'm not here, I'd have to be somewhere else, so I could see myself back there,” he said.

Like Pitino, Beard returns to college coaching for the second time. Also like Pitino, Beard returns to a familiar area.

Beard came back to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference when he took the Morgan State job in June. Prior, Beard coached at Howard University from 1990-94.

In 1991-92, he earned the MEAC coach of the year honors after Howard won both the conference regular season championship and postseason tournament.

Most recently, Beard coached the New Jersey Nets from 1994-96, where he compiled a 60-104 two-year record. Beard spent last season as an assistant to Washington Wizards coach Gar Heard.

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