Knees Bent, feet wide, hands tugging up his sweatpants, Rick Pitino barks orders like a terrier on amphetamines. "Jab, jab, c'mon, jab.... Get there, O, post him.... Jump hook! Nice." It's a shade past eight on a late October morning, and Pitino, Louisville's first-year coach, is putting a small group of his players through individual workouts, a task most CEO-style coaches leave to assistants. No detail is too small to discern, no miscue too minor to correct. "You've got to get low and wide on defense," Pitino says, halting the drill to demonstrate the correct posture to Larry O'Bannon, a 6'4" freshman forward. "Establish a wide base." As O'Bannon tries to keep his man from getting to the rim, the barking begins anew. "Low, low, stay low.... Stay with him.... C'mon, work, work, work!"
This is the part of the job Pitino missed most after he left Kentucky four years ago to become president and coach of the Boston Celtics, an unhappy sojourn that constitutes the only failure in Pitino's luminous career. Although he's not making his return to the college game completely by choice—the Celtics were a disappointing 102-146 during his reign—the decision to leave Boston was his own, and he walked away from $22 million he could have collected had he waited to be fired. Pitino, 49, relishes the chance to prove anew his lifelong conviction that anyone can become anything he wants as long as he's willing to work. "I found out I would rather try to teach a kid to be a pro than coach in the pros," he says.
Says Cardinals forward Hajj Turner, a 6'8" senior, "He's been at every practice, every meeting, running everything from the office to the equipment room. You can tell he enjoys it."
Pitino's confidence is still intact despite his time in Boston. "I won't say I'm humbled, but I know where I didn't do a good job," he says. Still, this isn't the same Earl of Ego who pranced into the University of Kentucky 12 years ago looking to fashion an empire in his own image. Chastened by failure with the Celtics and stunned by two recent deaths in his family, Pitino, who signed a six-year, $12.25 million contract with Louisville last spring, isn't pursuing greatness so much as happiness. "My days of trying to move up the ladder are over," he says. "I want to do what I love best—put together a unit that's unselfish, plays great defense and has the potential to get better. That's really it."
If that attitude holds, it would be a far cry from the churlishness he sometimes displayed at Kentucky, where he thought nothing of upbraiding a low-level athletic-department employee who dared approach him after a loss. Pitino's last few Wildcats teams were brilliant basketball machines, especially the 1996 national champions, but they were assembled in a humorless, corporate way. After Pitino left for Boston, his former players marveled that his successor, Tubby Smith, actually asked them about their girlfriends and their personal lives.
Since taking over at Louisville for Denny Crum, whom the school bought out for $7 million last March, Pitino has breathed life into a once-mighty program that had grown torpid, having failed to make the NCAA tournament twice in the last four years and having lost in the first round in the other two. Pitino helped raise $1 million to replace the Cardinals' practice floor and renovate their locker and weight rooms. He turned a courtside storage space into a cardio-workout facility. He revamped the coaches' offices, replacing Crum's black-and-gray scheme with bright carpets and lots of light. "When the decorator asked what I wanted, I told him, "Make it cheerful,' " he says.
The Celtics debacle aside, Pitino is a proven master at rejuvenating downtrodden programs. He reversed the fortunes of Providence, the New York Knicks and Kentucky by implementing a running, pressing, shoot-till-you-drop style. Once again he has made physical fitness the sine qua non of his latest reclamation project. "I did a study of 30 NBA stars, and not one of them had more than 10 percent body fat," he says. So the Louisville players run, then they run some more. The results are starting to show. Ellis Myles, a 6'8" sophomore who weighed 260 pounds last season, is down to 230, with 9% body fat. Brandon Bender, a 6'9" freshman, has dropped his body fat from 21% to 9.8%. Even 45-year-old administrative assistant Scott Davenport has, at Pitino's insistence, dropped 60 pounds since April, to 187.
If Pitino's belief in conditioning hasn't changed, neither has his ability to rub some people the wrong way. Last April he hired as his assistant coach Mick Cronin, who'd spent the past four years as the top recruiter for Cincinnati's Bob Huggins, who's now one of Pitino's biggest Conference USA rivals. By the time Pitino called Huggins to ask permission to interview Cronin, Huggins had heard about the courtship—and wasn't pleased. "I hope for Mick's sake he gets that job," Huggins told a friend, "because if he doesn't, I'm firing him." One of Cronin's first moves for Pitino was to lock up a commitment from Bender, a star at Louisville's Ballard High, whom Cronin had recruited vigorously for the Bearcats.
Nor has Pitino been reluctant to take on Louisville mayor Dave Armstrong over his efforts to lure the NBA's Charlotte Hornets to town. During a television interview on Oct. 25 Pitino accused the mayor of saying things to Pitino in private that differed from what Armstrong was saying in public, prompting the mayor to tell the Louisville Courier-Journal, "I don't know why he dislikes me." Pitino has proposed a statewide referendum to settle the issue, a rather disingenuous suggestion given that the Hornets must apply for relocation by March and a referendum wouldn't be held until next November.
It's nothing new for Pitino to immerse himself in work—this is, afterall, a man who spent three hours on his wedding night interviewing for a job—but there are profound reasons he is doing so now. Last March, Don Vogt, a brother-in-law of Rick's wife, Joanne, was struck and killed by a taxi in New York City. Then, on Sept. 11 Billy Minardi, Joanne's brother and Rick's best friend, was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, where he worked as an equities trader at the bond firm of Cantor Fitzgerald. Once coaching was a means to quench Pitino's limitless ambition; now it's a salve for his pain.