They were a couple of basketball junkies born five months apart in different parts of New York State. And they were destined, both of them, to be here at age 60, in tonight's NCAA championship game, Rick Pitino coaching Louisville, John Beilein coaching Michigan.
Their paths to this game are nothing alike.
* * *
Maybe their accents help explain. Rick Pitino's voice drips New York City. He has spent 20 of his 60 years living in Kentucky, and he still sounds like he just walked up the subway stairs at Columbus Circle. His voice has the rat-tat-tat rhythm of the city, of the actor off Broadway, of the acerbic newspapers columnist, of the local politician, of the wise guy kid who is going to make his first million before he's old enough to drive.
Pitino's talking here about the time his Kentucky team came back from 31 down against LSU . but he heightens the story with small details. He's a natural story teller. Fat Tuesday. Baton Rouge. Never thought we would lose again. And when he tells the little story with that accent - it sounds like it belongs in a movie.
John Beilein's voice - it is deeper, it moves much slower, it flows right out of a Richard Russo novel, like "Nobody's Fool." He's upstate New York, born and raised, eight brothers and sisters, a father who worked at the paper mill, uncles who infused in him a love of basketball. All he ever wanted to was have the keys to a gym and a team to teach how to run offense.
"Here is a great story that I love to tell," Beilein says, and he talks about walking through an AAU tournament in Orlando, and he was thinking that maybe his Michigan team needed another point guard. He saw Trey Burke, who (as you know) might now be the best player in America. "I watched him a couple of games," Beilein continues. "And I thought if we needed another point guard, that would be a great one to get."
You will note: That's not a great story. It does not resemble a great story. But it is an important story and it is told with much feeling - Beilein, you see, is all heart.
* * *
In 1978, Rick Pitino and John Beilein were each 25 years old. Pitino was named head coach at Boston University. In his second year, he guided the Terriers to the NIT Tournament. He went to be an assistant NBA coach for a couple of years and was then named the head coach at Providence. He coached a hard-pressing, full-court, go-and-get-them style that was breathtaking to watch and hell to play against. At 34, he led Providence to the Final Four. Then, at 35, he was named head coach of the New York Knicks. It was like that.
That same year, 1978, John Beilein was named head coach at Erie Community College just outside of Buffalo. He banged around at that job for a while, and then at age 30 he got a break, getting a coaching job at Nazareth College, a Division III school about an hour east in Pittsford. After a year there, he moved up to Division II Le Moyne College in Syracuse, which was about another hour east. His career was moving right along I-90 headed for Schenectady.
In the obvious ways - in style, in appearance, in ego - they were very different. But, beyond the surface, they were just basketball junkies born in New York State.
They both breathed basketball, thought about it every waking moment, dreamed about it at night. They both thought a lot about the movement of the game, the flow, how to keep the ball moving and the game circulating. And they were both brilliant about basketball - even if Pitino's brilliance was big and bold and there for everyone to see while Beilein's was quietly hidden somewhere in upstate New York.
"I bought his (instructional coach) tapes back in the day when he was putting out all of those great tapes," Beilein says.
* * *
By this point, Pitino was pretty much a coaching legend. And Beilein, well, he and his wife Kathleen had four children (one son, Patrick, would play basketball for his father), and he was developing his own reputation. Mel Brooks used to say that before he became internationally famous, he was the "comic's comic," meaning that inside the profession everyone saw him as a genius. That's how it was for Beilein. Inside the coaching profession marveled at the way he coached offensive basketball. His Canisius teams - like his Le Moyne teams - played a beautiful kind of basketball. They screened and cut and moved and shot at an almost musical tempo.
"You have fun watching Michigan play basketball," Pitino admits Sunday as he talks about watching the film heading into tonight's game. "It's a John Beilein team. They're fun to watch."
After five years, Beilein moved to Richmond, where his team shocked No. 3 seed South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. As he approached 50, Beilein got what would probably considered his first "big-time" job at West Virginia. In his third year, his team reached the Elite Eight - shocking Chris Paul's Wake Forest along the way. Now, people started to know him - his name started to make the rounds every time another big-time job opened. He took West Virginia to the Sweet 16 the next year. They won the NIT the next year.
And then, Beilein was given the head coaching job at Michigan. The team was coming off probation, they had not been a factor on the national stage in about a decade. No matter. This was Michigan. And this was the job John Beilein had been preparing for all his life.
"I think solving the puzzle is why I love coaching," Beilein says. "I love putting the puzzle together.
* * *
By the late 1990s, just as John Beilein's career was beginning to gain real traction, Pitino's rise had stalled and his life had become rocky. He left Kentucky to become coach of the Boston Celtics . and for the first time in his life it just didn't work. He coached for three and a half years, and the team never came close to a winning record. At one point he snapped at the press and made his famous "Larry Bird is not walking through that door" speech, where he ripped the negativity in Boston and promised he would not succumb to it. He probably did succumb to it, though. Or anyway, he came to understand that he was not indestructible.
"As a pro coach, when you fail with the Celtics," he says, "suddenly the full court press didn't get you over the hump. The three-point shot, the motion, didn't get you over the hump. You truly realize why you win and why you lose."
After that, he took the job at Louisville. He readily admits that he did not want to go back to the state, to deal with all the blowback that would come from coaching Kentucky's greatest rival, but he says he did because his wife Joanne thought it was best for the family. Then there was tragedy: Pitino's brother in-law and closest friend died during 9/11, something he says he will never get over. Then there was scandal: In the late 2000s, Pitino would announce he had been involved in an infidelity and was targeted for an extortion attempt.
Through it all, he says, he learned the most important lesson of his life. "I tell my son (new Minnesota coach Richard), `Don't make the same mistakes I made when I was your age,'" Pitino says.
"He said, `Did you press too much?'
"I said: `No. I wasn't humble enough . It took a long time for me to gain humility. If I had one regret in my life, it wouldn't be what you think. It's that I wasn't more humble at a young age.'"
This is Pitino's third Final Four with Louisville (seventh overall). And he says he has changed as a man. He says that he has come to appreciate what matters. Of course, people say that kind of thing all the time - but Pitino is 60, and he has lived through some high-highs and low-lows. This has been an amazing week for him. His team has a chance to win the national championship. His son just got the Minnesota job. His thoroughbred, Goldencents just won the Santa Anita Derby, meaning it is headed to the Kentucky Derby. And it's been reported he's about to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.
"I try not to ever get too low," he says. "I fight adversity as hard as I can fight it. . When a good thing happens, I don't really embrace it. I just say it's a lucky day."
* * *
Now, Beilein's Michigan and Pitino's Louisville meet for the national title, and the game has the potential to be a great one. Both teams were ranked No. 1 in America at some point this year. Both teams have amazing athletes. Both teams have shown the ability to go on amazing scoring spurts or to come from way behind. Louisville's press is a Pitino classic. Michigan's motion offense is as beautiful as any Beilein has coached.
When the two coaches talk on Sunday, you see how different they are. You can see why Pitino crested so quickly. He's magnetic. He instantly becomes the center of attention in any room he enters. And he has the ability to dig into his players without offending them. When Pitino thought he was asked how much he has enjoyed coaching Gorgui Diang for four years - Diang is just a junior who will probably turn pro after this season - Pitino said: "Gorgui is a three-year player so far. If he plays like he did last night, it (will) be four years."
And Diang laughed. He didn't laugh nervously. He laughed happily because it's actually fun to have Rick Pitino poke fun at you.
"You know, these guys are so different," Pitino says as he looks at his five starters sitting next to him. "That's what makes a great family. . I'll get on Chane (Behanan) unmercifully. He gives me that look. He knows I love him. He knows why I'm doing it. Russ (Smith) I don't even bother because he doesn't listen to a word I say."
It's fun, and it's loose, and there's no question that Pitino is the star. He was born to be the star - it's just a part of him. If he wins tonight, it will just confirm his place as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.
Then, Beilein, you can see how he has endured for so long? He has done it through consistency and decency and a lot of hard work. When his players are asked to talk about him, they are almost reverential. They talk about how different he was during the recruiting process, how he talked about education and about making them better players and better people.
This weekend, players from just about everywhere Beilein has coached - from Le Moyne, from Richmond, from Canisius, from West Virginia, from everywhere - show up to support him, to cheer him on, to see if after all these years and all those jobs and all the odds, he can climb all the way to the top.
"I hope I'm holding some kind of flag right now for all those Division II, Division III, NAIA, junior college coaches who really were some of the best coaches I ever coached against," Beilein says. "I know that they could be here right now if they had the same breaks I had."