By Brett Ungashick
In the last week we have seen quite different approaches to connecting with collegiate athletes. On one end of the spectrum was Mike Rice who attempted to inspire players by throwing basketballs at their heads and calling them “f***ing f***ots.” There’s not a whole lot to add to the Rutgers situation that hasn’t already been said. Yes, the school administrators predictably protected the profits over the people who were producing them. Yes, Mike Rice is certainly not the only coach in the country who has abused his free laborers. Additionally, the most embarrassing part of the situation is that had Rutgers done better than 15-16, and been a perennial tournament team, Rice would still have a future in coaching. Winning takes care of everything. Don’t believe me and Tiger? Bob Knight, the original Mike Rice, is a public face of ESPN and even amidst the Rutgers outrage, Knight was able to appear in a commercial during the championship game.
Monday night we saw Rick Pitino’s take on a championship culture. Rick Pitino’s team was every bit the overpowering favorite that Kentucky was in their title run last year, but the teams could not have differed more. Kentucky’s team was easy to despise. They were a bunch of superstar freshmen who decided to all play under America’s Least Favorite Coach for one uneventful season. Their championship felt like the fiscal cliff – some terrible certainty that everyone saw coming, but no one wanted to experience. Kentucky’s team never felt like more than a cast of talented individuals making brief and successful appearances together. The Cardinals, on the other hand looked like a team in the way that we idealize the term. They were a band of brothers of different ages, talent levels and experiences that all struggled with personal loss to provide a dominating and exciting tournament run. Watching Kentucky play was like going to Bonnaroo, a bunch of expectedly great individual performances that made for an entertaining entity. Watching Louisville play was like catching a Bruce Springsteen concert, a cohesive performance with familiar characters who had matured over years.
Most of the time when teams refer to their culture as a “family atmosphere” it’s nothing more than a recruiting tool. Just look at the Auburn story on Roopstigo where the coaches told Mike McNeil’s parents they would be his family for his college years and then abandoned him when his decisions affected others’ job security. But this Louisville team genuinely felt like a family in the sense that I know one – a collection of imperfect characters blended together perfectly. When other teams preach “family” they do just that – they preach it. They want everyone to know how close they are. However, despite CBS trying to convince us that Louisville’s season started the second Kevin Ware went down, Louisville’s chemistry was there long before that.
They didn’t have a Wooden Award Finalist or a dominant NBA prospect on their roster. But what they did have was a collection of sophomores, juniors and seniors who trusted in a coach and grew with a program. In the one-and-done era we don’t get to watch programs develop anymore. Talent doesn’t stick around on the college level because there is not much of an incentive to do so. What sounds better after windsprints in October – three hours of homework or dropping your rookie bonus out on the town? Rick Pitino was able to keep his talent, develop it and form it into something beautiful to watch.
From an outsiders point of view it looked like Rick Pitino made more of a meaningful impact on the lives of his players than any coach in recent memory. I can’t believe I just typed those words either because I always thought he would be terrifying to meet. Something about the slicked back hair and all white suit always made me think he was more Tony Montana than John Wooden.
But trying to imagine what a sports personality is like when the bright lights go out is exactly what has burned many of us recently. We try to extrapolate what we see from people in games into our imagination of their personal lives. Rick Pitino has definitely caused emotional pain for some of the people closest to him, including his wife. However, Louisville does not pay him to be a model husband, and I didn’t tune in to the National Championship to get relationship advice. Pitino’s job is to provide a successful and entertaining product, and more importantly to be a shaper of men. Is there any question that the players on the Louisville squad are better men for playing under Pitino? He taught his team that they could win without dominant players as long as they had trust in their teammates, and when they were down 16 to Syracuse in the Big East Championship, his team didn’t panic but instead they buckled down and won easily. Reliance and selflessness are virtues that they’ll be able to take with them for life.
Peyton Siva’s father nearly killed himself in a drug haze when Peyton, the catalyst for Louisville’s run-and-gun offense, was 13. Kevin Ware, a former top 100 prospect and key reserve, had one of the most gruesome injuries in sport’s history. Luke Hancock won the tournament’s highest honors in front of his ailing father. I understand that all teams have compelling stories, and that the media attention at the Final Four will always saturate us with these stories, but this Louisville team carried an astounding amount of emotional baggage with them to Atlanta.
The defining moment of this year’s tournament was Kevin Ware’s injury, not because of the shock value, but because of what unfolded immediately afterward. The reaction from his teammates bawling on the court while 35,000 people looked on gave you an idea of the type of team this was. Their response was equally indicative of their character as they huddled up and decided that the injury made it even more clear that there was no turning back for this group.
Equally amazing were the reactions from the Louisville parents throughout the championship game. Usually parent reactions serve only to annoy the viewers, but the images Monday night of Mr. Siva crying and all of the parents celebrating with their boys showed that this group had an uncommon bond. College kids don’t regularly let their parents into their lives in the way that the Cardinals did.
If you ever want to see what unbridled joy looks like watch Rick Pitino’s post-game interview with Jeanine Edwards. We watch teams win so frequently that even the thrill of victory can become mundane to a neutral viewer. However, Rick Pitino’s emotions were more than the satisfaction of winning. Rick Pitino was able to make a group of men feel an emotional connection that they’ll be able to build off of for the rest of their lives.
The sights of the tournament shined a bright light on Louisville, and they decided not to put on any makeup. Rick Pitino taught his team the value of each other, and I think that deserves a tattoo.