Before one ball was tipped this season, Pitino threw his competitive spear toward hated intrastate rival Louisville, blasting Cardinals coach Denny Crum for a dinner that Crum had with the mother of Dwayne Morton, a high school recruit who committed to Louisville instead of the Cats—a dinner Crum admitted was a recruiting violation. "I have no trouble with Louisville breaking the rules," Pitino says. Ouch. "I just refuse to play on unequal ground."
Similarly he does not suffer ghouls gladly, specifically those attempting to swipe an edge. When Knight confronted referee Ed Hightower over a noncall at the end of the first half of the Indiana-Kentucky game, Pitino was livid. Pointing, screaming, bearing down on Hightower, Pitino berated him, saying, "I've coached 200 pro games. Just ignore him!" When Hightower called the coaches together at the start of the second half, Knight declined the invitation, so a lovely little mutual-hate affair may have started already.
"This is all déjà vu for me," says Kentucky graduate assistant Billy Donovan, the little doughboy whom Pitino turned into the three-point shooting fool who led Providence to the 1987 Final Four. "Coach's preparation is incredible. He doesn't just know the game, he attacks it."
Pitino was quick to institute major changes in a program that had grown as stale as it was crooked. All bases were covered, from the team garb—the Wildcats switched shoes from Nike to Converse, the company that pays Pitino a bundle, and they really do look quite good in those trendy and hamstring-warming bike pants—to the practice facilities at Memorial Coliseum.
Pitino was appalled to discover that the team was using lockers left over from 1951, when Newton lettered for Rupp's third national champions. So private benefactors donated $1 million for renovations, including new glass-walled offices overlooking the practice floor and, yes, new chalkboards.
Pitino easily won over the Kentucky students with such ideas as a scrimmage open only to them, and signs emblazoned with a 3, which the students hold up every time a Cat jerks up a trifecta. The students chant "three!" when the ball goes in.
Pitino also has vowed to move his team out of Wildcat Lodge, the plush athletes-only facility, and back into regular student dorms, the better to integrate them into campus life; to hurl paranoia to the winds and schedule lesser instate schools, like Murray State; and to ride herd on his players' minds as well as their bodies. "The man isn't playing around," says Miller, who was barred from eight practices after he missed eight classes in summer school. "I've never been a discipline guy, but this coach has cleaned up my act."
In the off-season, unprecedented running and weightlifting—in preparation for Pitino's exhausting, full-court, 40-minute pressure defense and fast-draw attack—resulted in sophomores Deron Feldhaus, a forward, and Richie Farmer, a guard, both losing almost 25 pounds, just as Donovan once did at Providence. "I didn't know what 'shape' meant," said Farmer, who told Pitino that he trained all summer on Bud Light at the fishing hole back home in the foothills of Clay County.
"The biggest difference around here is atmosphere," says junior forward Reggie Hanson. "Last year everything was 'investigation.' It got to where we didn't want to go to practice or even play the games. It was so depressing. With Coach Pitino, everybody goes around with a smile on his face."
That's especially so when Pitino's New York accent clashes with Farmer's mountain twang. To set up one of Kentucky's plays, Pitino used to shout "fist" and a perplexed Farmer used to answer "fi-erst?" As soon as the two bewildered linguists got that straightened out, Pitino confused everybody again by talking about "toynaments." You know, the NCAA toynament, the NIT toynament. "Both Richie and Coach need speech therapists," says Hanson.