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Rick Pitino really isn't going anywhere

10/30/2012

Somewhere along the way, Rick Pitino changed his mind.

Less than a year ago, Pitino said that 2016-17 -- the final season of his then-current contract -- would be his last. He seemed convinced, and he was convincing:

"When you're 59, you're realistic that you don't have a whole lot of years left," Pitino said at a news conference. "My contract's going to run out in 2017. I'm not coaching anymore after that."

Eleven months later, something has clearly changed. Because not only is Pitino not sticking by that 2017-or-bust proclamation; on Tuesday, he signed a contract extension that will pay him his current base salary of $3.9 million annually until 2022. From ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil:

"[Athletic director] Tom [Jurich] said to me, 'You have three years left and I'd like to extend you until you're 70,' " Pitino told ESPN.com. "I said can we make it until I'm 69? It just sounds better. But he said 70 or nothing."

Why the sudden change? As Pitino told Dana, speaking with some of his friends in coaching had an effect on his decision-making process. Former Indiana Pacers coach Jim O'Brien once told him retirement was the way to go, that "basketball seemed trite" after you took the leap, but -- surprise, surprise -- O'Brien inked an assistant coaching job with the Dallas Mavericks this summer.

"I said, what gives?" Pitino said. "He said he was getting bored and I thought, this is like somebody is telling me something. I just enjoy it so much. I already lost my best friend in 9-11. This would be like losing my other best friend. Basketball has consumed me since the age of 7 or 8. I don't know what I would do without it.''

That makes sense. It's the apocryphal but common story of the retiree who couldn't find purpose once the work was done. I'd wager it's just as common that people find plenty of purpose when they finish work -- family, or golf, or travel, or random odd jobs -- but it has to be a nagging fear for anyone preparing to embark on that next stage of their lives. What do I do now? For someone as intense and focused as Pitino, for whom one sport has comprised a lifetime, it must feel doubly frightening. Who am I without basketball?

There is also, of course, the cynical view. When Pitino first announced his intention to retire after his prior contract expired, it was seen as a given that competing coaches would use it against him on the recruiting trail. Negative recruiting isn't supposed to happen, but you better believe it does, and in a situation like that, it's not exactly difficult to draw the dots for players and let them do the connecting themselves. With the classes of 2013 and 2014 and even 2015 now in coaches' sights, that sort of stuff was no doubt rampant this summer. By signing an extension, Pitino goes beyond mere reassurance that he's "considering" extending his deal. Now recruits -- and fans, and fellow coaches -- know he'll be around for the long haul.

Or perhaps Pitino's experience in 2012 sealed the deal. It had been a difficult few years, to say the least, but the Final Four trip with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva and the rest of a team Pitino frequently described as among the favorites in his career had showcased a coach having as much fun as he'd ever had. He was joyful in March, savoring every step of the ride. He was radiant.

In any case, Pitino is going to keep coaching for a long time to come. Whatever his reasons for changing his mind, as someone who loves watching great basketball coaches work, I'm glad he did.