Pitino earned his way back into the starting lineup the week before the season's first game, and he felt euphoric after all he had endured. "My self-esteem was so high," he says. But 20 minutes before the game Leaman stuck it to Pitino one last time, announcing to the team, "I've decided to make a change. I'm not going to start Pitino." A wave of nausea came over Pitino, and he nearly got sick right there. Leaman had lifted him up so he could drop him again. On that night, Pitino says with a lingering touch of emotion, "I hated the son of a bitch." Just 45 seconds into the game, Leaman looked over at Pitino and said, "Slug, get in there."
Heading toward the scorer's table, Pitino passed Wilson, who winked and said, "It's over, kid."
Pitino's two years as a starter in Amherst had a reverberating impact on him as a player and as a coach. Leaman's disciplined, patterned style of play was as old-fashioned as a peach basket, and it required Pitino to turn his game inside out. For the point guard, shooting was verboten. His sole job was to run the offense—to set the tempo of the attack and distribute the ball. "It incorporated me into the world of 'we' and 'team,' " says Pitino. "And 'I' and 'my' kind of left. I became the ultimate team player."
He had practiced shooting all his life, and for two long years he was forced to check his jumper at the door. No wonder that, as if in rebellion, he has instilled a run-'em-ragged, aim-and-drain style in every team he has coached: a system of organized chaos in which players move in swarms, like bees, and everyone, from the tallest to the smallest, shoots the ball—even (and especially) the three-pointer.
Pitino became a bold innovator. When the three-point shot was introduced in 1986, he was the first college coach to exploit its potential, the first to understand the game's new math: Shooting 40% from outside the arc produces more points than shooting 59% from inside it. And he turned upside down the fundamental notion that teams must "work the ball" close to the basket on offense and drop back on defense. His teams held back on offense to fire from afar and swarmed forward on defense.
His experience at UMass ultimately taught Pitino lessons in button-pushing that he would draw upon time and again to motivate players. Bill Reynolds, a sports columnist at the Providence Journal-Bulletin and a biographer of Pitino, says Pitino manipulated players all the time at Providence. "They'd play on Tuesday night," says Reynolds, "and on Wednesday he would kill them: 'You're horrible.... You suck.... You're the worst.' By Friday, when they were ready to play again, Rick would say, 'You're the greatest.... You're the best shooter...the best rebounder.' They believed it."
And Pitino had the seductive spiel of a Chautauqua orator. When he arrived in Providence in 1985, he gave a speech at a booster luncheon that had the audience in a trance. "Forget about your bills!" Pitino declared. "Buy those season tickets now. When you go to sleep tonight, I want you to dream about cutting down those nets!"
Reynolds sat transfixed. "I thought, Who could possibly believe this nonsense?" he says. "Does he believe it? He was like a tent revivalist. Brother Ricky's Traveling Salvation Show." Two years later there was Reynolds in Freedom Hall in Louisville just moments after Providence beat Georgetown in the Southeast Regional final. "They were cutting down the nets," he recalls. "It was unbelievable."
Wherever Pitino went, he could not get there fast enough. He wanted to be a head coach by the time was 25, and he nearly self-destructed trying to get there. In 1976, after he had been an assistant at Hawaii for two years, the school came under investigation by the NCAA, which later nailed the Rainbows' basketball program for 68 rules violations, citing Pitino by name in eight of them. Among other things, according to the NCAA, Pitino had arranged a deal in which a Honolulu Ford dealer would receive two season tickets in return for giving cars to two players. Pitino was also accused of providing three players with airline tickets between New York and Honolulu. Pitino denies these charges, "I had absolutely nothing to do with any of that," he says.
Hawaii coach Bruce O'Neil lost his job in the scandal, and he asserts that Pitino betrayed him by going to the university president, Fujio Matsuda, and angling for the head coaching job while the investigation was still going on. "He said he wanted to be a head coach at age 25," says O'Neil. "Maybe he had to do whatever it would take to further his career, but what he chose to do, I thought at the time, was at my expense. I thought I deserved some loyalty." O'Neil worked out a deal with the university under which he resigned as head coach and became an assistant athletic director—on one condition: "Rick didn't get the job," O'Neil says.