ALBANY — It’s not difficult to recognize where allegiances lie around here.
Indiana fans in red. UConn fans with Huskies logos on shirts and caps. The Miami pep band in green, white and orange rugby shirts.
Then there was the coach who needed no logo or school colors to still be by far the most recognizable person in the building, despite sporting a bright white hoodie and sweats and brilliantly white, spotless new Adidases. A blank slate of apparel that nevertheless commanded extra attention because of who was wearing it.
Rick Pitino is the sun around which March Madness revolves at MVP Arena this week, at least for as long as his 13th-seeded Iona Gaels, who play No. 4 Connecticut at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, keep winning.
There were 350 media credentials issued at the Albany site for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament games, and a substantial number of those credentials gravitated around Pitino even after his formal pre-practice interview session ended on Thursday, with more questions. And more.
His legendary coaching saga is well-documented and includes national championships in 1995 with Kentucky and 2013 with Louisville, later vacated.
Pitino had NBA stints with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, is the only head coach to get three different schools (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) to the Final Four and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
There has also been scandal and controversy, including the vacated national title, a suspension by the NCAA for lack of program oversight and a federal investigation of bribes to recruits, for which Pitino was fired by Louisville for cause. He fought that in court for two years and eventually reached a settlement.
After a few years in limbo, he resurfaced at Iona three seasons ago, and although the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is a few notches below the big-time conferences in which Pitino has coached, he remains the center of attention. It’s a measure of his stature that several other coaches and even some players in Albany fielded Pitino-related questions during Thursday’s day-long mediafest.
“He had been a good player at UMass, but he became a much better teacher, coach, and he was innovative,” Miami head coach Jim Larranaga said. “So he had the fullcourt press. And then maybe go back to a match-up zone. He experimented with different things.
“First at Boston University and then in the NBA, then at Providence, then at Kentucky and Louisville. He’s had a lot of opportunity to try different things because he’s had so many teams with different personnel.
“I think when you have that, now that he has that at Iona, he has all that experience to rely on. Okay, this is what works. This is what doesn’t work. Wherever he coaches, he’s a Hall of Famer and going to do a great job.”
The biggest, most persistent question for Pitino lately has been whether he’ll be leaving Iona for another head coaching job after the tournament.
The rumor mill quickly churned out the possibility that Pitino would leave Iona for St. John’s of the Big East, which fired head coach Mike Anderson last Friday, a day before Pitino’s Gaels beat Marist to clinch an NCAA bid.
When asked about St. John’s earlier this week by Justin Walters of PIX11News, Pitino said, “I don’t know. At one time, there was talk of an extension, a new contract and so on [at Iona], and it didn’t work out. There’s no hard feelings. If anything, there’s the opposite, there’s great feelings. I don’t know. At the end of the year, I’ll look at certain situations. I’m local, but I haven’t been on the St. John’s campus in 30 years. I don’t even know how to get there. I’d have to get navigation. So it’s not as easy as people think.”
Naturally, Pitino’s future was the hot topic on Thursday in Albany.
One of his players, Walter Clayton, Jr., fielded a question about a potential distraction, and he sniffed, “The internet’s going to talk.”
In typical fashion, the voluble Pitino’s answer was significantly longer:
“Well, in 1996, I was lucky enough to have about five or six pro teams that I spoke to after it was over [that were] interested in me. Back then, there were no agents and so on. It was always popping up. But I didn’t ever address it at all.
“Today, I would say that you’re not hired by the internet. My players, it’s not a distraction for them at all. We have a lot of fun together. It’s really not a distraction. I’ve always taken it as a compliment throughout all the years that if somebody else is interested in you, I’m very thankful for that, but I never pay attention to it. We never talk about it.
“The players expect everything I have as a coach to try and win this game, and that’s it. It’s all about Iona.”
The question was framed differently for UConn head coach Dan Hurley, as a potential boon overall to the Big East if Pitino goes to St. John’s and resurrects the Red Storm’s former standing as a college basketball force.
“You’re going to make me speculate?” Hurley said, to laughter from the media. “Anything that happens relative to programs being super strong in our league is only going to be beneficial to the Big East.
“So I’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to be unfair to those kids at Iona that have won 14 in a row and have played their tails off to put their team in this spot. But every team in the Big East being at their absolute best is best for everybody.”
Part of Pitino’s legacy is building up programs into powerhouses.
He doesn’t characterize the job he’s done at Iona as a turnaround, since the Gaels had already been perennial MAAC contenders before he got there.
St. John’s has been to the NCAAs just three times since 2003. If Pitino takes the job there, his name and reputation alone could help the Red Storm regain some of their past glory.
“I know what you’re alluding to,” he laughed, to a question about his lingering desire to rebuild a program, any program. “The thing you have to look at is my players don’t leave unless they just can’t play at this level. They came for player development.
“I have a terrific team coming back. I look at that as the No. 1 factor in my life. To answer your question that would be honest, it’s going to take a special place for me to consider leaving.”
What isn’t in question is his desire to keep coaching, to stand in the middle of a program and pull it all together as a teacher and motivator.
On the contrary, the 70-year-old Pitino didn’t dismiss a suggestion that he could stay on the job for another 10 years, at least.
And there he was during practice in the bright white sweats and sneakers, jumping into a layup drill to play defense against two of his big men, who both missed short turnarounds, to the delight of everyone on the court.
“Well, I’m physically fit, and mentally, I think I still have it,” he said. “The two years I was out of coaching was the most miserable two years of my life because I missed it so much. That’s why I went to Greece.
“What I learned more than anything else is to really appreciate this game. The two years that I was out of it, I missed it so much. I wasn’t a depressed person. But I wanted no part of the lifestyle that I was leading.
“I suck at golf. It wasn’t my thing to sleep past 7 o’clock. Now what I do, I’m up from 7 to 10, what do I do with myself? OK, you read. You have coffee with friends. Then they talk about basketball, and you’re sick to your stomach.”
“I feel like he lives for this,” Iona graduate guard Berrick JeanLouis said. “He loves basketball a lot, and he even says it in practice a lot: ‘I’ll die for basketball. I want to die on a basketball court.’ He talks crazy about it. He loves that.”