Saturday, December 20, 2008
Tubby vs. Pitino
Pitino, Smith renew friendly rivalry in desert
The Associated Press
Friday, December 19, 2008
LOUISVILLE, Ky.: Rick Pitino had just accepted the job of resurrecting Kentucky's scandal-ridden basketball program in 1989 when he realized his thick New York accent might not play so well in living rooms south of the Mason-Dixon line.
So Pitino reached out to some friends asking if they knew someone with deep Southern ties who could help the Wildcats emerge from college basketball purgatory.
Every time the answer came back Tubby Smith, an assistant at South Carolina at the time. A couple of interviews later, Smith had the job.
"I never have been much for hiring people I don't know personally, but this is one case that it happened that way," Pitino said. "I was impressed because of his personality. He had a charm and he was from a totally different school."
Nearly 20 years later, Pitino still calls it one of the best hires he's ever made and changed the career path of both coaches.
The last two decades have seen both lead the Wildcats to national titles before leaving college basketball's all-time winningest program for decidedly different locales.
Pitino is now in his eighth year at archrival Louisville, while Smith is in his second year at Minnesota after abruptly leaving the Wildcats after 10 years at the helm in the spring of 2007.
The two old friends will meet again Saturday, far away from the raucous crowds of Freedom Hall and Rupp Arena when the ninth-ranked Cardinals (7-1) play the unbeaten Golden Gophers (9-0) in the decidedly staid conditions at University of Phoenix Stadium as part of the Stadium Shootout.
The matchup is the first since Smith was wooed north by Minnesota, a move that left Kentucky's notoriously passionate fan base stunned.
While Smith's popularity steadily declined after he won a championship in 1998, the idea that a coach would leave Kentucky for a Big Ten school that has the same number of official NCAA tournament wins as Kentucky has national championships (seven) baffled some and enraged others.
Pitino, who has been forgiven by most Kentucky fans for leaving the program in 1997 to coach the Boston Celtics before returning to the college ranks at Louisville in 2001, said Smith's decision to leave shouldn't tarnish what he did for the Wildcats.
"Anytime you win a championship, you go down in history as significantly contributing to the university," Pitino said. "I think that Tubby will be highly regarded because he not only won it at UK but his players turned out to be much better than people thought."
Even if the teams didn't always follow suit. The Wildcats never made it back to the Final Four after 1998, leading some to suggest that Smith only won it all because he was coaching players that Pitino recruited. It's a notion Pitino dismisses.
"The only influence I had on that basketball team was that they were brainwashed about winning, they expected to win," Pitino said. "He did a masterful job with that team and never got his due credit for that."
Appreciation is a little easier to come by at Minnesota, where the Golden Gophers are off to their best start in more than 30 years. Smith is doing it the way he's always done it: with a suffocating man-to-man defense and just enough offense to get by.
Though Louisville and Minnesota haven't met in 14 years, Louisville forward Terrence Williams knows what to expect in the desert. He got a good long look at it during his freshman and sophomore years when Smith led the Wildcats to decisive victories over the Cardinals.
"He has teams that play for 40 minutes," Williams said. "They have a great style. They get up on you and pressure you. They're relentless on defense and they have the type of style where they deny the ball so if you're not ready for it, it's going to make it a long game."
The contest will be Louisville's second in less than 48 hours. The Cardinals held off Mississippi 77-68 in Cincinnati on Thursday night then got on a plane and flew 1,800 miles west. The Golden Gophers, meanwhile, have enjoyed a 10-day layoff.
Both coaches know the other will be prepared. Pitino holds a 6-4 edge over Smith, though Smith has won three straight against his former boss.
"We have a lot of things in common. Obviously in the business, Rick is an outstanding coach, but he's a good person," Smith said. "He's one of the most caring and giving individuals I've ever been around. I really appreciate that."
Though there will likely be a warm handshake and a little small talk before tip-off, Pitino and Smith know Saturday won't be the time to play catch up. There's a little too much at stake.
For Pitino it's getting his team to play up to his own lofty expectations. For Smith it's helping Minnesota take another step toward respectability in the Big Ten. Pitino has no doubts the coach he took a chance on all those years ago will make sure the Golden Gophers get there.
"Tubby's a great guy, a great person and he's great for our sport because he has integrity," Pitino said. "His kids are very lucky to play for him."
By the way, Minnesota wins, 70-64. A major upset.