Moreover, the Cats' probation caused their leading scorer (LeRon Ellis, now at Syracuse), rebounder (Chris Mills, Arizona) and assist man (Sean Sutton, Lexington Community College, which has no team) of last season to transfer, leaving their former team not only high and dry but short and unsweet. This Wildcat squad is the smallest (no one is taller than 6'7") and probably the least talented since Lexington mayor Scotty Baesler (5'11½") laced up his sneakers for the varsity in 1962.
With no light at the end of the tunnel and nothing but locomotives bearing down—Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame join Indiana on the Cats' schedule—it was hardly the time for Newton to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey in selecting a new leader. "Initially, the Commonwealth went from denial to embarrassment, then from admission to resolve to let's do it right and get the right person," says Newton, the well-respected former Alabama and Vanderbilt coach. Newton was dubbed Kentucky's "director of corrections" by his friend Indiana coach Bob Knight. His choice for warden—after Lute Olson used Kentucky, once again, to bargain up his salary at Arizona and Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo responded lukewarmly—was the high-profile Pitino.
"Let's face it. You can't low-key Kentucky basketball," says Newton. "I'm not a gimmick guy. But the masks and music and introductions that first night—we needed that. We needed to start having fun around here again."
And don't spare the expense. Along with his base salary of $105,000, the money from Pitino's TV and radio shows, summer camps, shoe contract and other endorsements could swell his annual earnings to a tidy $855,000. That's more than Bush and Gorbachev make combined, and they've both had better years.
But not better decades. Call Pitino the Resurrector. At Boston University he turned around a team that had won 17 games over two years and produced the same number of victories in the very first of his five seasons. Following a two-year stint as a Knick assistant, Pitino went to Providence, which had been 11-20 the year before, and guided them to 17-14 and 25-9 seasons. The Knicks were the worst team in the NBA for three seasons before Pitino returned to his hometown team, this time as head coach. Two years later they won 52 games, finished first in the Atlantic Division and were 4-0 against the eventual league champion Detroit Pistons.
Naturally, Newton and Kentucky overlooked Pitino's rough edges. While an assistant at Hawaii, Pitino was implicated by the NCAA for eight different rules violations, and last spring former Rainbow coach Bruce O'Neil told the Lexington Herald-Leader, "Rick's always had trouble with loyalties." With the Knicks he had a bitter falling-out with general manager Al Bianchi, whose animosity lingers to this day.
Pitino has been accessible to Kentucky writers, even while keeping them at arm's length from his players, mostly through closed practices. "With all the investigations and negative publicity, my team was embittered toward the press," Pitino says. "I told them that was wrong. But I also told them access was being limited, that they would not have to be interviewed every waking moment."
Pitino himself gets very little shuteye. Office hours routinely begin at 6 a.m. Postgame, he studies tapes into the wee hours. He even enjoys recruiting, "the thrill of the chase, the competitiveness of it," he says.
"Coach lives to compete," said Derrick Miller, the Wildcats' senior guard, after the narrow loss to the Hoosiers last Saturday. "He told us never to back down from Indiana, to stick it to them."
Kentucky forced 25 turnovers by a confused, freshman-dominated Hoosier team but came up short when guard Sean Woods missed a 20-footer at the buzzer. "We sent a message today," Miller said. "I've played on good Kentucky teams with [Rex] Chapman and [Ed] Davender. But they never competed like this team did today."