The wistful years of Rick Pitino

ATLANTA -- It was almost like an initiation rite -- borderline hazing really. Fresh meat Rick Pitino, hot off an NBA assistant coaching job alongside Hubie Brown, walked into his first coaches meeting as a Big East boss and directly into a buzzsaw.

Jim Boeheim and P.J. Carlesimo had set him up, directing Pitino to question the merits of Rollie Massimino's plan to unequally distribute the money from a league ball contract. Pitino's background from the pros, his relationship with Brown, they told him, would make Pitino the ideal person to question whether Massimino's plan was fair.

"Well he goes off on me like you wouldn't believe,'' Pitino said. "He's calling me a f----ing whippersnapper, saying you came here like some hotshot from the pros. Exactly the opposite of what they've told me.

"Well then he says something that set me off, and I go back at him. 'Who do you think you are? F--- you. You've won one f---ing national championship.'''

That was Rick Pitino in 1985 -- fiery, combative and happy to pick a fight.

This is Rick Pitino today: On Sunday, the day before his Louisville team plays in the national championship game, he sat down for his required media session. Most coaches, paranoid or paralyzed with game planning, itch to get off the dais and back to their team.

It felt like Pitino would have been happy to talk forever, his press conference more a wandering monologue that spanned topics as varied as the state of college basketball, the problems with the summer-league game and frequent trips down the memory lane of his own career. Only occasionally was there a prod about how to stop Michigan.

Pitino was funny and thoughtful, his answers sometimes meandering but his points well made. The one-time whiz kid who refused to cede an inch to his elders is now 60, at that stage of his career and his life where he is as much a philosophical oracle as he is an X and O genius.

But this is about more than just the wisdom of age.

Like all of us, Pitino's life is an arc -- twisted, turned and ultimately changed by time and experiences. His wild successes always have been pockmarked by horrific loss, some deeply personal, such as the death of his child and of his best friend and brother-in-law Billy Minardi; others publicly humiliating, such as his failure with the Boston Celtics and worse, the Karen Sypher scandal that just three years ago turned him into a punch line.

Pitino has hung on through it all, emerging if not softer certainly more reflective.

"If I had one regret in life, it wouldn't be what you think,'' he said. "It's that I wasn't more humble at an earlier age.''

On Monday night, Pitino could complete a superfecta that would test the humility of Mother Teresa.

On Tuesday, his son, Richard, was named head coach at the University of Minnesota; on Saturday, his horse won the Santa Anita Derby and qualified for the Kentucky Derby; at 11 a.m. Monday, he will be announced as a member of the latest Hall of Fame class, and 10 hours later his team will play for Louisville's first national championship since 1986. Should the Cardinals win, Pitino will become the first man to lead two different teams to national titles.

Yet asked over and over to put it all in context, to say what it all would mean to him, Pitino refused to bite.

"I can give you some years where I can name the other way,'' he said. "So you take it in stride.''

Taking it in stride is not something he was built to do in his early days. Pitino was a bundle of fireball and spitfire.

Back in his undergrad days at UMass, his fraternity cook, a guy by the name of Ken Ford and known to everyone as Jersey Red, called Pitino the Exorcist. He was that combustible and unpredictable, a tempest always ready to burst.

Even when he knew the joke was on him in that first Big East meeting, he refused to give in. When then Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt tried to broker a peace treaty between Massimino and Pitino, putting them in the same golf foursome the next day, Pitino balked.

"He's got me in a foursome with P.J., Boeheim and Rollie, and I'm in the same cart as Rollie,'' Pitino said. "I refused to get in the cart. I walked the entire 18."

That fire is still there, but it's more confined to the in-bound lines of a basketball court. He is fierce and relentless on the sidelines, endlessly directing and barking at his players with barely a pause for breath.

Away from it, he jokes and pokes fun at them, cracking one liners about his players and allowing them to give it right back.

"You never would have heard him call someone 'Russdiculous' before,'' said Peyton Siva, who's seen his coach change in just the four years he's been at Louisville. "I'm sure he had guys just as crazy in his career, but he didn't have that sort of relationship with them.''

The simple kneejerk explanation is to say that the Sypher mess changed him, taught him to value what he had instead of searching for something better.

And yes, it did affect him. The coach Siva knew as a freshman was uptight, caught up in the all-consuming scandal. The coach he has now is relaxed and energized. "He still had that competitive edge, but there's more of a light now,'' Siva said.

But to pinpoint one moment as the game-changer in a life full of highs and lows is not only simplistic, it is inaccurate. Pitino is more complicated than that; life is more complicated than that.

He's managed to keep the stubborn tunnel vision of his youth yet temper it with a reflection that only experience provides.

After all this time, all of these successes, he gets it, gets it better than he ever has before. Twelve years ago, Pitino arrived in Louisville fresh off the crash and burn with the Celtics. Longtime WHAS-AM radio host Terry Meiners remembers the moment well.

"He was like a wide-eyed kid at an amusement park, just delighted to be back in the college game,'' Meiners said. "This season, he's been giddy like he was 12 years ago.''

The joy comes from a lot of places, starting as most things do with Pitino with his basketball team. Pitino frequently talked about how much he has enjoyed this team, and really they are the perfect group for a coach in need of a reboot -- unpretentious, teachable, amusing.

He also has grandkids now, four of them. Meiners, who lives in the same neighborhood as one of Pitino's sons, said the coach is "crazy in love with those grandchildren."

He's also got a life's worth of accomplishments and a life's worth of failures. Together, they add up to a life's worth of perspective.

A few months ago, Pitino told the story about that first Big East meeting.

"What they did to me was so cruel,'' Pitino said. "But I enjoyed that period of my basketball life as much as any I've ever been a part of.''

He was laughing at first and then wistful.

Life has a way of doing that to you.