Louisville coach Rick Pitino is caught in the middle of his own share of controversy from reports of his interest in the Nets' job to his admission last summer of an extramarital affair with a woman he claims tried to extort him. But that doesn't mean he's too busy to throw a lifeline to a fellow coach fighting for survival.
After St. John's (13-10, 3-9 Big East) snapped it's five-game Big East losing streak with a 74-55 blowout of Pitino's Cardinals (15-9, 6-5), the Louisville coach said he hates to lose, "but if there is one consolation, I'm glad it was to St. John's because their kids played really hard. Really terrific. I'm really happy for them and Norm. It was our worst game of the season, but they had a lot to do with it with the way they played defense."
This was at the end of a day in which Pitino had spent the better part of his time trying to shoot down reports that he wants to evacuate Louisville and either return to the NBA or possibly take a college job elsewhere. And you know that college gossip thread eventually leads to St. John's, where coach Norm Roberts is embattled after six years on the job. Pitino is a New York City kid, a former Knicks coach, and he has the resume to land most any job he wants. Except maybe as coach of the 4-48 Nets.
The question about St. John's and Pitino always has been whether the school has the kind of money not only to pay a coach in Pitino's $2 million tax bracket but to also upgrade the campus facilities. In a way, he kind of underlined those issues when discussing the problems Roberts or any St. John's coach faces. Pitino asked what you expect any recruit to do after he visits Louisville and sees a modern $15 million practice facility and a $350 million basketball arena under construction and then compares it to St. John's.
"I think they've actually done a remarkable job," Pitino said of Roberts' recruiting. "They have very good players in that locker room, and they play real hard. They're not on a level playing field from a facilities standpoint. Now, it didn't matter tonight because they kicked our ----."
But recruiting does matter on most nights. Before the game, former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca and stars Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1985 Final Four team, all said recruiting can turn things around in a hurry if the Red Storm lands the right one or two players. They agreed too many of the top recruits from the New York metro area have gotten away.
But Pitino took a different tack, saying, "Everybody is a critic, but Norm can flat-out coach. The problem with St. John's is they've always relied on their inner-city talent, and you can no longer do that today. I mean, New York is the greatest city in the world, but if you've got to go to Chicago or Indianapolis to bring players in, you've got to broaden your horizons. It can't just be the city anymore."
Asked if his comments were inspired by any special feeling for St. John's or for Roberts, Pitino said, "Yeah, because in the old days, it didn't really matter. You came to play for Louie. It's different today.
"Norm's a terrific basketball coach; they've got a great staff; they're working really hard at their job, and they've come close. They played Villanova as tough as anybody. They've had games where they haven't played as well, but it takes time to build a brand. Sometimes, it's like musical chairs. You change things, and you're still left with the same problems. I guarantee you, if St. John's makes a major commitment to improving [facilities], you'll see a lot different situation."
Roberts called Pitino "one of the classiest guys in the business" and said he appreciated the support. And while he agreed it's important to recruit all over the country, Roberts said, "The thing with St. John's is you always want to get those homegrown kids because they're going to have a different feel about playing for St. John's. It's always important to recruit your own backyard. I'm sure he probably feels that way in the state of Kentucky."