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April 7, 2013

Pitino took Michigan job, then changed his mind




ATLANTA-- Had fate taken a different turn, Louisville coach Rick Pitino might have been coaching Michigan instead of the Cardinals in Monday night's national championship game, or at least been the coach of the Wolverines for some period of time.

During Sunday's Final Four press conferences, Pitino related a story about how he had agreed to become Michigan's coach before changing his mind and being persuaded by UofL athletic director Tom Jurich to move to Louisville instead when he decided to return to college coaching in 2001 after an unsuccessful stint with the Boston Celtics.

His story -- entertaining, as most of Pitino's stories are -- involved a parable, lions, lambs, his wife Joanne, Las Vegas, a book and a staircase.

In March of 2001, Pitino, who now has 663 career victories and will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in September, might have become the Wolverines' coach if then-Michigan athletic director Bill Martin had not been out of the office when Pitino called. Instead, Martin was playing either squash or racketball and didn't want to be disturbed.

"I was fired up to be the coach at Michigan," Pitino recalled. "It was kind of a funny story because I agreed to be the Michigan coach. I lived in Boston right on Commonwealth Avenue. We visited Las Vegas (UNLV, which wanted to hire him_. I love Las Vegas. My wife doesn't like Las Vegas. We had young children at the time. She said, 'Look, I just don't want to go out west. I want to stay near our family.' It wasn't Las Vegas as a town, it was the fact that it was west of the Mississippi.

"So I'm on the third floor, putting together all the things together with the Michigan contract and my wife comes up. She had a book. There was an expression in the book that, "I'd rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb.' My wife doesn't swear. She didn't want to go to Michigan because I've never visited there, I didn't know anybody there. She wanted to go back to Kentucky where she saw the family so happy for eight years."

When UofL came calling, Pitino says his wife questioned him for his unwillingness to return to the Bluegrass State, where he had previously coached at Kentucky from 1989-97, winning a national title in 1996.

"I said to her, 'You don't understand, the Kentucky coach can't coach at Louisville. You're just not getting it.' "

"She said, 'It's one game every year, and every other year you have to visit. What's the big deal?' I said, 'It's a big deal. We don't want to do that. We'll be miserable. You don't want to put yourself in that situation.'

"She said, 'You know what, that line, 'I'd rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb,' you're an effing lamb,' then walked downstairs.

"I said, 'Think about it. There's half a million Kentucky fans in our town. It's not like living in Lexington where if you wear red, you get shot. It doesn't work that way.'

So Pitino put in a call to Martin to discuss the situation, and when he couldn't reach him, left a voice mail message saying he had changed his mind. The rest is history.

"I went to Louisville, and I'm really happy I did," Pitino said. "It was the right move for my family."

Martin and Michigan ended up hiring Tommy Amaker after Pitino detoured to Derby City. Amaker, now the head coach at Harvard, lasted six seasons before current coach John Beilein took over in 2007.

PITINO WANTS MORE PRESSURE

Prior to Louisville's 72-68 win over Wichita State in Saturday night's Final Four semifinal, UofL guards and Russ Smith insisted that the loss of Kevin Ware, which short-circuited the backcourt rotation, wouldn't affect their aggressiveness on defense.

However, Pitino said Sunday that's exactly what happened, with Siva, Smith and others being too concerned about foul trouble. And he added that's a shortcoming they'll need to correct in Monday night's national championship game with Michigan.

"Guys were afraid to foul and their pressure relented pressure until we obviously had to try to win the game," Pitino said. "So they were all trying to play very cautious, didn't get after people. Besides the great play of Wichita State, it was one of the reasons we didn't force turnovers. Everybody was afraid to foul. Gorgui was afraid to block shots. Russ and Peyton were being overly cautious.

"When you play that way, you shoot yourself in the foot. You have to play with foul trouble, use the bench, use potential superstars like Tim Henderson (smiling)."

Center Gorgui Dieng got into foul trouble anyway, didn't score and had six rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes. He attempted one shot. Siva scored only seven points, hitting just 1-of-9 shots while missing all five of his 3-pointers. Smith led UofL with 21 points, but was 6-of-17 from the field, 5-of-12 from the free throw line and had five turnovers.

"I didn't have my 'A' game, but I already forgot about it," Dieng said. "It doesn't make any sense to think about the game yesterday. We win, we survived. Just try to have a good practice today and be ready to go tomorrow. I get a chance to redeem myself."

HANCOCK COMES ON STRONG

This is exactly what Luke Hancock envisioned when he transferred to Louisville from George Mason before the 2010-11 season, which he had to sit out -- life on a big stage and a shot at a national championship.

"Oh yeah, I checked their roster and saw how many good players they had," Hancock said. "Plus, I knew the recruits they had coming in, Coach Pitino's success and Louisville's tradition."

What Hancock probably didn't suspect, however, was how big his role would be. He scored 20 points in the 72-68 semifinal win over Wichita State, hitting 6-of-9 shots -- including 3-of-5 3-pointers. And after averaging just 7.5 points during the regular season, he is the Cards' second-leading scorer in the eight postseason games with a 10.0 average. He is shooting 52.5 percent, including 42.3 from 3-point range (11-26), both significant improvements.

In the process, he has become one of the best sixth men in the country, usually replacing starter Wayne Blackshear 3-4 minutes into the game.

"I'm very happy with my role on the team," Hancock says. "I'm just happy we're winning games and I can be a part of this team. I know exactly what I'm supposed to do out there. If I get the ball and I'm open, I should shoot. If not, I should pass it or drive to the rim. I just try to take care of the little things and do whatever I can. And on defense, just try not to mess up too many times."


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