Motivation at core of Pitino's success
Eight years ago, University of Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton thought hiring Rick Pitino as coach was the perfect way to revive a men's basketball program devastated by NCAA probation.
''I felt like he was the best young coach around,'' Newton said. ''I felt he was on the cutting edge.''
Now, Newton knows he had more than the right answer to rebuild UK. He considers Pitino someone who is carving a reputation alongside such legendary figures as Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp and former Alabama football coach Paul ''Bear'' Bryant.
''Rick is the best coach in all of basketball,'' Newton said. ''I felt this about Coach Rupp and Coach Bryant and a few other coaches: Rick can take your personnel and beat you, or he can take his personnel and beat you.''
Pitino, 44, is showered with praise for steering UK (34-4) through a mine field of adversity and leading the defending national champion Wildcats back to the men's NCAA Tournament Final Four.
They play Minnesota (31-3) Saturday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
UK earned its third Final Four berth in five years despite losing four players from last year's 34-2 national championship squad, three of them first-round NBA draft picks.
Another player transferred, and another redshirted.
On top of that, Derek Anderson, the team's star, was lost Jan. 18 because of a knee injury.
''How many coaches could have taken what Rick Pitino had this year and done what he's done?'' said Larry Conley, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former UK player.
Just how has Pitino done it?
For starters, he didn't exactly have chopped liver to work with. UK is deep and talented, led by sophomore forward Ron Mercer, who is entering the NBA draft in June.
''Pitino's got talent there,'' said CBS analyst Clark Kellogg. ''It's not all smoke and mirrors.''
Still, Pitino had to replace 65 percent of UK's scoring from last year before the season began. Then he had to redesign the offense again in midseason when Anderson, the team's leading scorer, went down with his injury.
''A coach with less confidence and less self-esteem and less concern about the team would have started using (Anderson's injury) as an excuse,'' said Newton, a college coach for 32 years. ''Rick would not let that become an excuse for not playing well.''
Pitino's reaction to Anderson's injury - framing it as an opportunity for another player to shine - didn't surprise Florida coach Billy Donovan.
''Coach is one of those guys who likes the underdog role of trying to overcome and conquer,'' said Donovan, who was an assistant under
Pitino at UK and played for him at Providence College. ''He gets them to overachieve by putting a tremendous amount of belief in them.''
Cameron Mills is an example.
The junior guard began his career as a walk-on. He played sparingly and averaged 1.1 points his first two seasons.
But recently he's blossomed into a major contributor.
''If you watch players who played for Rick, they all improve,'' Newton said. ''That's a mark of a really good teacher.''
Positive reinforcement is the cornerstone of Pitino's teaching methods.
And the players take what he teaches and execute it during games.
Not easily done.
''He's a tremendous communicator,'' said North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek, an assistant under Pitino at UK.
''He has the ability to take his message and the information he has and convey it in a way that's easily absorbed and learned.
''In addition to that, he's a fantastic moti-
Many of the motivational tactics used by Pitino stem from his two seasons coaching the NBA New York Knicks from 1987-89.
''At the pro level, talent is everywhere,'' Kellogg said.
''There, it's a matter of finding buttons to push to keep your 12 or 13 guys together doing what they need to do.
''It's a matter of tapping into individual guys and getting them to rally around an individual cause.''
Pitino was able to do that this year with senior Anthony Epps. Late in the season, Pitino convinced the senior he could best help the team by moving from point guard, his career position, to shooting guard to make room for sophomore Wayne Turner.
''That's a pretty gutty move late in the year,'' Newton said.
''He also had to have Epps accept it. As a senior, it would have been easy for him to pout or say poor me. But Rick doesn't permit that.''
Moving Epps from a position he played for
3 1/2 seasons, and making the team better for it, is the kind of adjustment Pitino's former assistant coaches expect from him.
''He just has a sixth sense for knowing his personnel,'' Sendek said.
''He has a great feel for what the team needs in a specific situation.
''He knows when to challenge, when to be demanding, when to give a great deal of love.''
What doesn't change is Pitino's system of play.
He tinkers with it.
''But the core of UK's style is constant: Apply pressure on both offense and defense.
''They play with great freedom on the offensive end and great intensity on both ends,'' Kellogg said.
''To me, that's a sign of a coach being able to really sell his players on what it is they need to do to be successful.
''He's done a really nice job of blending pieces and elements of the pro game and putting it into the college style.
''They play exactly the same every time in style and objective.
''That's why they're able to weather the storm of losing a key guy or two: Everybody's in tune with what needs to be done.''
Everybody seems to be in tune now with the masterful job Pitino has done this season.
It might take on legendary proportions years from now.
''He's one of those very unusual coaches who comes along just occasionally,'' Newton said.
And for the University of Kentucky, he came along at just the right time.
Publication date: 03-27-97
© Copyright 1997, The Cincinnati Post. All Rights Reserved.