Long before Christian Laettner broke his heart with the greatest shot in the greatest college basketball game of them all, Rick Pitino made quite an impression on the young prospect out of Buffalo.
Laettner had been to a lot of camps and had listened to a lot of instructors before signing with Duke. But one such instructor dazzled him with his knowledge like no other.
“Christian would rave about Rick Pitino all the time,” Laettner’s brother Christopher would tell me. “He would say, ‘You’ve got to see this guy coach.’ ”
It really is something to see Pitino work a sideline. His intensity is best described as a 40-minute full-court press. He’s right up there with the all-timers, the John Woodens and Mike Krzyzewskis and Dean Smiths, even though he made one of the biggest big-game mistakes I’ve ever witnessed from a courtside seat — not putting a Kentucky defender on Coach K’s inbound passer Grant Hill at the end of that 1992 Elite Eight epic in Philly, allowing Hill a free Hail Mary look to Laettner on the way to Duke’s second straight national crown.
So three decades later, it was fitting that St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg gave the 70-year-old Pitino his last real crack at the Final Four (a potential eighth trip, at a fourth different school) and a national title (a potential third, at a third different school). As a Duke official and Coach K aide, Cragg jumped up from his scorer’s table seat and shouted when Laettner’s buzzer-beater landed before apologizing to his Kentucky counterpart for what would be his only in-game cheerleading moment as a college administrator.
At a Garden press conference Tuesday, arranged for the introduction of the former Iona coach, Pitino as Mike Anderson’s replacement at St. John’s, Cragg called his new coach’s career numbers “mind-boggling.” Pitino has won 834 college games. If everything goes as he says it will, Pitino will be chasing his 1,000th victory at the end of his six-year deal.
Can he really build a national power at a Big East school that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2000? Can Pitino turn around St. John’s as quickly as he turned around the Knicks of the late 1980s? Can he become the first coach since Lou Carnesecca in 1985 to lead the university to the Final Four?
“Yes,” the 98-year-old Carnesecca told The Post by phone. “I see Rick Pitino getting us back there in the next four or five years.
“His coaching ability is beyond reproach. No matter where he’s coached in college, he’s had great success. He works like a son of a gun, and all the credentials are there. I think we have a wonderful head coach.”
Nobody has ever loved St. John’s, or represented it with more dignity, than Lou Carnesecca. So the question had to be asked: Was Looie OK with his school hiring a coach who ran a scandal-scarred program at Louisville, and whose acknowledged personal indiscretions as a victim in an extortion case don’t quite align with St. John’s stated values.
“It’s very simple,” Carnesecca said. “That’s why we have confessions.”
On Pitino’s watch, a Louisville staffer paid for sex workers to entertain recruits and players in a dorm, compelling the NCAA to vacate the school’s 2013 national championship. Pitino would lose his job in the wake of a separate investigation into a pay-for-play scheme, including an Adidas-backed plan to pay $100,000 to one recruit, though the NCAA ultimately absolved the head coach of blame.
He says that he runs his programs with integrity, and that he’s guilty only of hiring some people who betrayed him. Whatever. No matter how much time the St. John’s president, Rev. Brian Shanley, spent Tuesday saying he hired Pitino primarily because he will improve the players as human beings, everyone knows the deal.
Just like the Christian Brothers at Iona, the Vincentians at St. John’s didn’t hire a great humanitarian here. They hired a great coach, nothing more and nothing less.
And what’s the harm in admitting that, by the way? Major college sports are big business, and big businesses are designed to crush the opposition.
There’s only one sure way to do it, too. A long time ago, another St. John’s legend named Frank McGuire told a young Carnesecca that the secret to winning is no secret at all.
“Get players,” McGuire told him, so Looie told Pitino the same thing.
Toward that end, the new St. John’s coach admitted to reporters at the Garden that “a lot of the players won’t be back.” So some of the same student-athletes Shanley wanted to benefit from Pitino’s life lessons will apparently have to do their growing up under another coach at another school.
But that’s the way it works in the upper reaches of Division I, where Pitino will do what he has to do to prevail.
“St. John’s is going to be back,” he said. “I guarantee that.”
Rick Pitino’s track record says we should believe him. It also says the students should be looking for their real-world guidance somewhere else.