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Rick Pitino learning he can change, still find success

Rick Pitino, Russ Smith

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, right, hugs his player Russ Smith after his team defeated Florida 72-68 in an NCAA tournament West Regional final college basketball game on Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)


On the surface, Rick Pitino is a bad man.

He dresses slick, is incredibly sarcastic with the media and rarely wastes an opportunity to use punishment as a teaching opportunity.

It’s this approach that makes him one of the more recognizable, if not best, head coaches of the past 25 years.

But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed as this season has moved along, it’s how increasingly affable Pitino has become. Suddenly, he simply just seems happier. He’s flaunting his charismatic personality far more than his patented snarl.

A demanding and sometimes manipulative guy, the 59-year-old has had a number of well defined stages to his life. Perhaps the next stage is Pitino closing out his career at peace.

ESPN’s Rick Reilly sees it that way too:

Pitino’s life has more chapters than the Red Cross. He has been the whiz kid (the 1987 Final Four at Providence), the savior (at Kentucky in 1989 after Eddie Sutton left it in ruins), the goat (leaving Grant Hill unguarded in the infamous 1992 loss to Duke), the hero (the redemptive 1996 Kentucky title), the NBA answer (jumping to the pros for a second time in 1997 after two straight NCAA title games), the NBA failure (five losing seasons of six at New York and Boston), and, now, the dreamer (at Louisville, forever Robin to Kentucky’s Batman).

So this moment, this Saturday, with the commonwealth of Kentucky in flames all around him, should be the close-up of his life. Yet it’s not. He might be the least wound-up person in the entire state.

While it’s a great read - and includes a few fantastic anecdotes on Russ Smith on Gorgui Dieng - Reilly’s article should be taken with a grain of salt.

Let’s be realistic: you could probably attribute a measurable amount of Pitino’s more tolerable personality to his Cardinals overachieving the last month of the season.

Remember, this is a team that lost by 31 to Providence in the middle of January; the most helpless part of the season where you start to get sick of the grind but realize you’re not even halfway up the mountain. Pitino wasn’t so happy then, and neither were his players. It appeared the quirky personalities on the Cardinals roster were clashing with the aging coach.

So could it have been at that point where Pitino, a guy with more than 800 wins between both college and the NBA, five Final Four appearances and one National Championship at the time, made a concerted effort to just ... calm down?

"[Rick] told us the other day he doesn’t have that many years left,” Kuric told Reilly after the Cardinals won the West Region. “He said he’s going to enjoy it. He’s going to be around people he likes.”

While a berth in the Final Four was well deserved, the Cardinals could have easily been bounced at any point in this tournament.

Pitino knows these are the breaks of a 68-team playoff system. Sometimes you get Kenneth Faried grabbing 17 rebounds, other times you get Florida shooting 0-9 from beyond the arc in the second half.

He’s happy to be in New Orleans, yes, but probably thrilled at the opportunity to show his self-reformation may be the primary reason this team is still standing.