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By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He's the hottest, most controversial two-legged animal in Derby town. Kentucky Wildcats ex-coach Rick Pitino is back in Bluegrass basketball, a sport that is crazed religion, having become coach of bitter UK intrastate rival Louisville.
But that'll have to wait.
Thursday morning, Pitino stepped carefully among Churchill Downs horse dwellings, where non-hardboots do little Gucci dances and winged-tip tip-toeing to avoid thoroughbred droppings.
Along the way, his eager eyes seemed to search for collegiate colorings and hoops attitudes of human passersby, heading for Barn 36 where Rick's connections were undeniable.
Pitino has a major share in Kentucky Derby horse A P Valentine, along with Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan of Tampa. "This is all fun for me," said the 48-year-old New Yorker. "Nothing like coaching basketball. Here, it's the job of (trainer) Nick Zito to lose sleep, get nauseous and take the rap if things don't go well."
Rick chuckled at his assessment.
He, Sullivan and several partners own Ol Memorial Stable. Until a few weeks ago, it was Celtic Pride Stable. But since there was little about Pitino's 31/2-season flop with the Boston team to suggest pride, the name was changed upon his departure.
It honors Old Memorial Golf Club, a prodigious Hillsborough County course where Rick and Outback originators Sullivan and Bob Basham are founding members. "We had to shorten the "Old' to "Ol' because the Jockey Club has a limit on letters," the basketball guy said. Pitino says he has played Old Memorial "less than 10 times."
Basham and Sullivan are among six principal owners of the somewhat turbulent Rays. Other members at Old Memorial include Fred McGriff, Vinny Testaverde, Trent Dilfer and former U.S. Amateur champion Fred Ridley.
Pitino wore a Masters golf shirt Thursday. Upon being told Ridley is the newest Augusta National member, the hoops maven said, "Always good to have that kind of connections." This chap already is thinking tee times in Georgia.
While saying he has heard "from many UK fans who indicate they plan to pull for the Louisville Cardinals except for one day a year, when we play the Wildcats," zealot undercurrents in this basketball madhouse suggest Pitino is extensively viewed with less than cuddly embraces.
UL backers give him rock-star attention, but around this old Ohio River town you see eye-catching blue-tinted bumper stickers that bellow: "Pitino: May You Bring to Louisville the Prosperity You Had in Boston."
It's a tough league.
What if Duke wizard Mike Krzyzewski left the Blue Devils for the NBA, spending a few unhappy seasons with, say, the Chicago Bulls, before returning to college basketball at North Carolina?
You get the idea.
What if Steve Spurrier checked out as Florida Gators football coach, endured a less-than-delightful spell of making NFL multimillions in Atlanta or New Orleans, then decided to work again at the collegiate level, taking over at Florida State?
A jock Benedict Arnold?
"It's been much better than I expected," Pitino claimed, as he works at succeeding 30-year Louisville coaching icon Denny Crum. "I wanted the Celtics to be my last coaching job but that didn't work out. Now, my absolute idea is to make U of L the end for me."
Pitino had campus success at Providence, did okay in the NBA with the New York Knicks, then jumped to UK when the mighty Wildcats were suffering, producing a national champion in 1996 before fleeing back to the pros for 3 1/2 miserable Boston seasons.
I asked if he considered coaching at Texas Tech. A little Pitino smile appeared, knowing the Lubbock school is the new domain of flammable ex-Indiana hero Bob Knight. "I was afraid," Pitino said, "to even be interviewed for that job."
Pressed to assess his evolution, Pitino said: "I did not leave Kentucky for Louisville. I saw the Celtics as a dream opportunity, with their incredible history. It went badly. I couldn't stay. I needed a new job.
"Should I go, say, to Tennessee where I would be in the SEC with Kentucky, competing head to head on every aspect? Or do I go someplace where I know no one and have no ties? Or do I come to Louisville, a city I already loved, where many of my better friends live?"
Presenting it as a no-brainer.
Local television showed the $2.25-million home Pitino is buying, a Mockingbird Gardens property with a tennis court 15 minutes from the University of Louisville. He also owns houses in New York, Miami and Boston, although the latter is for sale.
"Basketball gets a rest for this week," Pitino said. "I'm enjoying the exhilaration of having our second Derby horse. Trying to talk myself out of the idea that A P Valentine has any real chance. Knowing if the horse wins it would mean so much to a lot a wonderful people whose friendship I cherish."
No UK fans among the ownership.
Ironically, the owner of another Derby colt, Songandaprayer, is former Duke basketball standout Bobby Hurley. Pitino's most painful loss ever was a monumental NCAA East final in 1992 that Duke won on an unforgettable last-second shot by Christian Laettner.
"As long as it's not Laettner who owns the horse," Pitino joked, "I'm okay with it. I don't think Christian is ever allowed to set foot in this state." Funny, but that is pretty much the emotion many Kentuckians, especially from up the road in Lexington, appear to now have about Coach Rick.
In many ways, Pitino is in the race of his life.