Rick Pitino's style has changed
The Louisville coach's demeanor has softened, but the results are still quite good
Top 50 Coaches: No. 5, Rick Pitino
Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 5: Louisville's Rick Pitino. On Tuesday, we release No. 4.
Go back and research the 2010 recruiting class rankings and Louisville is nowhere near the top 25. Yet that class, more than any other during his tenure with the Cardinals, is indicative of why Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame basketball coach.
As much as Pitino has changed from his start at Boston University to his current tenure at Louisville, one thing has remained clear: He's still got the knack for developing players.
Tim Henderson was a walk-on in the 2010 class. Without him, it's unlikely the Cardinals and Pitino win the 2013 national championship. It was Henderson's back-to-back 3-pointers in the national semifinals against Wichita State that jump-started the Cardinals' rally from a 12-point deficit and lifted them to the title game.
Ralph Willard, who served on Pitino's staff with the New York Knicks and at Kentucky from 1989-90 and Louisville from 2009-2011, said not many other coaches would have had the confidence to put a walk-on in that situation.
"What other coach would have the confidence to do that and what walk-on would have the confidence to make the shots?" Willard asked. "It's because of the daily, repetitive intense demand that Rick puts on all his players. And he takes a special pride in that. He loves the fact that they come in one way, as players and as people, and leave another way. That's the core of what he does."
Center Gorgui Dieng wasn't ranked in the ESPN.com top 100 players of 2010 when he arrived at Louisville. In three seasons, Pitino helped him turn into the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round draft pick in 2013.
In a sense, it's what Pitino has always been able to do. All of his players don't end up drafted, but he tends to get them to play up to their potential.
Jeff Van Gundy, who was on Pitino's Providence College staff from 1986-88, considers the Friars' run to the 1987 Final Four the gold standard of coaching. Like the Cardinals' 2010 class, Van Gundy said forget All-Americans, the Friars barely had "all-league players," but Pitino took those "low-major players and made them really good."
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"No one has ever done a better job coaching his team at any sport in any year," said Van Gundy, a former Knicks coach who is now an NBA analyst for ESPN. "There might have been equals, but no one has ever done it better."
Pitino was the first coach to take three different schools to the Final Four and became the first to win national championships at multiple schools when the Cardinals won it all in 2013. Walter McCarty, who played on Kentucky's 1996 national title team, said the subtle changes Pitino has made along the way allowed him to stay at the top.
Pitino is much more personable with his players than he was 20 years ago. McCarty -- who also coached on Pitino's staff at Louisville from 2007-10 -- said back then players only saw Pitino if it was practice, a game or "if you were in trouble."
It's not uncommon now for Pitino to text with his players. The bus rides to games might include a soundtrack of music or even Pitino cracking a joke over the intercom. That didn't happen as recently as 2009, when Andre McGee was a senior guard.
McGee joined the staff in 2010 and just left his position as director of basketball operations to become an assistant coach at Missouri-Kansas City. He said there was always a distance between Pitino and the players when he played.
"He was more of a general and we were his soldiers," said McGee, who added his team never would have known Pitino was a fan of the hip-hop artist Pitbull back then.
No single player epitomized how much Pitino has evolved over the years than guard Russ Smith. He was the first to sign in the 2010 class. Smith's tendency to go off script drove Pitino crazy. McCarty and McGee said Smith probably couldn't have played under Pitino during their eras.
"As talented as [Antoine Walker] was as a freshman he really didn't get onto the court because he just didn't buy into the team thing," said McCarty, who is now an assistant with the Boston Celtics. "He wanted to do his own thing. And he sat. He was maybe kicked off the team two or three times. The same with Rodrick Rhodes. He was a very talented player, especially as a one-on-one player and it just didn't work out for him."
Willard said Pitino used to, like many coaches, operate with the "my way or the highway philosophy." But with Smith, Pitino showed that he'd changed. The charismatic Smith was notorious for reacting when the subject of Pitino's ire with a hug and an assurance that he'd get better.
Willard said it was Pitino's vision for Smith's skill set that allowed him to become an All-American guard and be acquired by the New Orleans Pelicans in a draft-day trade last week.
"What he found in Russ was a unique skill that had to be tempered and grown into what he eventually became -- a very, very effective college player and I think he's going to be an effective pro too," Willard said. "Without Rick having those two attributes at the core of his coaching in terms of making kids better skill wise and better mentally and emotionally, I don't think [Russ] would have done that."
That comes as no surprise to Van Gundy, who says he knew even back in the '80s that Pitino was a special coach.
"He's just a remarkable, remarkable coach," Van Gundy said. "As I said before, you know when you're up against it as a coach, when you're coaching against greatness as a coach. That guy has been great so very long. It's incredible the consistency that some of these guys have achieved and coach Pitino is one of them."