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Pitino Regrets Leaving Kentucky, Shares Greatest Mistakes in Coaching

Rick Pitino was Kentucky‘s Darth Vader. The chosen one brought the program back from the depths of hell and turned the Wildcats into a title-winning dynasty that dominated the 90s. Then he did the unthinkable and became the head coach at Louisville.

As time has passed, Pitino has been more open about his time at Kentucky. He’s referred to the program as “Camelot,” sharing regret for leaving Lexington to become the head coach of the Boston Celtics. He reiterated that Monday morning on Pardon My Take.

“I was offered about seven or eight pro jobs before the Celtics, obviously I was the Knicks coach, and that’s a dream for me being a New Yorker, but hindsight is 2020,” Pitino said. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably never leave Kentucky. You know, Dick Vitale, every time I speak to him, ‘If you would have stayed at Kentucky, you’d have more wins than any coach,’ and you think back on that. 

“But I learned a lot. To coach the Boston Celtics, even if you didn’t do a great job, it’s just too much. You know, you got Red Auerbach, you got Bill Russell,  Havlicek … and so many greats. It was worth the experience. But if I had to do it all over again, I had a choice, I probably would have stayed in Kentucky.”

His Biggest Mistake at Kentucky

You know the play. You see it every year when the CBS intro plays. Grant Hill throws the pass the length of the court to Christian Laettner, who sinks the jump shot at the buzzer to win the greatest college basketball game ever played.

That play has served as a cautionary tale for coaches. Pitino did not assign anyone to guard Hill. You always guard the ball first. If put in the same scenario today, he’d guard the inbounder, but that’s not the mistake he made in the huddle after Sean Woods banked in the go-ahead bucket with 2.1 seconds on the clock.

“My mistake was I grabbed (Deron) Feldhaus and (John) Pelphrey and said, ‘Whatever you do, they haven’t missed a free throw, don’t foul them.’ I should’ve said, ‘Knock the ball down.’ Because we sandwiched him, Christian Laettner, and both players froze and didn’t even try to block the shot,” said Pitino.

“My mistake was not saying sandwich him, knock the ball down, not whether to not to put a guy on the ball, and that was my mistake in that game.”

Pitino’s Worst Loss was to the Cats

During the wide-ranging interview, the Hall of Fame coach was asked about the best players he coached. At the collegiate level, it was a no-brainer, Jamal Mashburn. He also was asked which win was the sweetest and which one still pains him to this day. Pitino’s pain was the BBN’s gain.

In 2004, Pitino’s fourth year at Louisville, the Cards stormed out to a 32-16 lead at halftime of a Top 15 rivalry matchup. Freedom Hall was rocking, but Patrick Sparks was unfazed. The Western Kentucky transfer scored 15 second-half points to bring the Wildcats back to life. Needing a bucket to take the lead with 4.8 to play, Tubby Smith drew up an inbounds play that put the ball in Sparks’ hands.

“One game I wish I had back was a game against Kentucky where I told Francisco Garcia, ‘Whatever you do, don’t leave the guy taking it out. It’s going back to him.’ We were up, we were going to win the game, it was our Final Four year, and he left the guy out of bounds,” said Pitino.

Sparks got the ball back and was fouled on a three-point shot with less than a second remaining. He sunk all three free throws, capping off the largest second half comeback in Kentucky basketball history.

“That game, we had the game, we out-played ’em and we left him. Whatever you do, don’t come off the ball. We came off the ball. That I remember so well because all we had to do was stay on him and it’s Louisville-Kenucky.”