Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach who can be a first-class jerk

Rick Pitino has forgotten more basketball than most of us will ever know. In 35 seasons as a college coach, he has made 23 NCAA Tournament appearances with five different programs. He was the first to take three different teams to the Final Four, the first to win NCAA championships with two different universities, and his last losing record was 1981, a streak that spans 32 seasons and stretches the borders of believability.

But in addition to being a Hall of Fame coach, with an 848-305 record that includes a 54-21 mark in the NCAA Tournament, Pitino can also be a first-class jerk. He’s the veteran coach who thinks success gives him cover to do and say what he wants, when he wants and how he wants.

The latest example came Sunday after St. John’s blew a 12-point halftime lead in a 68-62 loss to Seton Hall. Pitino, 71, did not hold back, calling his first season with the Red Storm “the most unenjoyable experience of my lifetime” and taking aim at everything and everyone.

“Do we have s—y facilities? Yes, we do,” he said. “Having s—y facilities has nothing to do with not guarding. … Look, Joel (Soriano)’s slow laterally, he’s not fast on the court; Chris Ludlum is slow laterally; Sean Conway’s slow laterally; Brady (Dunlap)’s physically weak; Drissa (Traore) is slow laterally.”


Pitino unleashes on St. John’s facilities, players

Former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said “I know it when I see it,” when asked in 1964 to describe his test for obscenity. Paraphrasing Stewart, I know classlessness when I see it, and Pitino was the essence of the word Sunday.

Some will shrug and say it’s part of the Pitino Experience, pointing out that he has displayed this type of behavior during the formative stages of each of his coaching stops. Maybe so, but that should not give him cover from being called out for publicly shaming individual players whose deficiencies were known to him before he signed them, which he acknowledged Sunday.

“We recruited the antithesis of the way I coach — with speed, quickness, fundamentals, strength and toughness,” he said. “It’s a good group, they try hard, but they’re just not very tough.”

If Pitino had stuck to speaking of the collective — “WE were slow laterally. WE lacked physicality.” — the words would have hit differently. But singling out individuals for physical traits that no amount of coaching or training will improve dramatically is low by any motivational standard. Then again, maybe he figures it worked for him before so why not again. He has uncanny recall abilities, which he leans on in practices and games, as well as in less-stressful media interviews, where he can be charming and gregarious, leaving one to wonder which is the alter ego — Pitino on the court or away from it.

He reminds me a lot of the late Bobby Knight, who was as complex as he was controversial and seemed to believe that the ends justified the means. Knight could be brash, rude and demeaning toward his players, as well as with the media, but people tolerated and even condoned his behavior because he won championships and lots of games. He also could be charming, colorful and funny.

Some will pooh-pooh Pitino’s biting comments as part of doing business. We like to say this generation of players is overly soft and too much time is spent focusing on people’s feelings. They argue the participation trophy mentality is weakening the fabric of society. Perhaps there are threads of truth to that, but there is something to be said for how you do something being as important as what you do.

Pitino could have made his point to the players behind closed doors, in the practice gym, rather than using the media as a motivational tool. He has been around too long, done too many press conferences, for us to believe the words he used — and how and when he used them — were not calculated. The Red Storm has lost eight of 10 after a 12-4 start and likely will need to win the Big East tournament to participate in March Madness, so the ends justify the means, right?

But openly criticizing  Soriano, Ludlum, Conway and Traore for their lack of lateral quickness is not going to produce a sudden and dramatic improvement in their physical abilities. Sometimes we are what we are, and no amount of training or public shaming is going to change that.

Pitino has a history of using negative comments to produce positive results. Some of that was highlighted in Brendan Quinn’s 2023 profile of the coach in The Athletic. One passage that stands out, focusing on what took place after Pitino persuaded Soriano to return to St. John’s rather than turn pro:

“Then, though, came offseason workouts,” Quinn wrote. “The film session when Pitino told Soriano he isn’t good enough to play for St. John’s Prep in Queens, let alone St. John’s University. The time Pitino told Soriano there’s a reason his previous teams at St. John’s and Fordham didn’t win with him. This preseason, Pitino demoted Soriano to the second string in preseason practices.”

The difference between that and what Pitino did Sunday is the location. His comments Sunday should have been made in private, just like those in the offseason.

(Photo: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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