By Jeff Riger

As college basketball and the country gets ready to watch the Final Four this weekend, I find myself thinking what I usually think this time of year; what if Rick Pitino went to coach at Michigan instead of Louisville?

I remember it like it was yesterday…

Pitino had just resigned from the Celtics and was looking to get back in the college game. After many schools showed interest, things came down to Michigan and Louisville as schools most likely to land the coaching icon. The Wolverines had fired Brian Ellerbe while the Cardinals saw hall of fame coach Denny Crum retire, Pitino was going to replace one of them. I was so sure Pitino was going to Ann Arbor. I recall Michigan hoops fans wearing a cut out picture of Pitino’s face on their face and there was even a bring-Rick Pitino-to Michigan rally as well. It all made so much sense! It was the perfect fit; at least I wanted it to be.

Of course Pitino decided to go to Louisville while the Wolverines hired Tommy Amaker and the rest as they say is history. It’s still vivid to me, Dick Vitale on the radio on the day that Pitino was supposed to decide. In the morning, Vitale claimed Pitino was heading to Ann Arbor, but in the afternoon things had changed and Vitale came back on and said that Rick choose Louisville because his wife Joanne loved to ride horses. I was officially heartbroken! It was the first time in my life that sports made me feel as bad as breaking up with a girl friend or even losing a pet. I know it should not have affected me like that, but it did and I still wonder “what if” to this day.

Of course Pitino now has his Cardinals in the Final Four once again as Louisville gets set to battle one of the coach’s old teams in the Kentucky Wildcats. While next to no one expects Louisville to win on Saturday night, nothing would surprise me, especially when Pitino is coaching the team. Considering Louisville had to go through Michigan State last Thursday to get to where they are I have decided to drop my annual question for another one. Instead of wondering what Michigan hoops would be like with Rick Pitino, I have now started to contemplate, if I had the choice, which coach I would rather have? Pitino, or the coach that he beat handedly last week, tournament master Tom Izzo?

It amazes me how similar the two are.

Both have been to the Final Four 6 times, both have won a national title and both seem to be in that secondary group of college basketball’s coaching greats. It’s true! It seems like Coach K, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun are the top of the “great coaches” pyramid. Then you have the Izzo’s, Pitino’s, Bill Self and others. I don’t agree with it, but it seems to be the way that people think the hierarchy goes. In fact if I had my choice, I would take Pitino or Izzo over all the previous names that I listed, that’s how talented I think these two guys are.

But if it came down to one or the other, who would you take?

Below I decided to list the resumes of both Pitino and Izzo and then let you decide for yourself. Of course I will throw my thoughts in as well…


1 National Title in 2000
6 Final Four appearances 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010
7 Big Ten Titles 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2010, 2012
3 Big Ten tournament titles 1999, 2000, 2012
2 NCCA Title games 2000, 2009
7 Elite Eights 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010
10 Sweet Sixteen’s in 17 years of coaching
15 consecutive NCAA Tournament Bids
AP National Coach of the Year in 1998
Big Ten Coach of the Year 1998, 2009, 2012

Izzo also is responsible for one of the more amazing stats in college hoops as every four year student that has attended Michigan State has got to experience a Final Four

I realize that Michigan State basketball was not dead when Izzo took over, it was just down. As recently as 1990, Jud Heathcote had MSU as a 1 seed in the tournament. However what Izzo has been able to accomplish after taking over for Heathcote has been nothing short of amazing. Izzo has turned MSU into one of the elite programs in college basketball. When March rolls around, people expect at least a Final Four, anything else is a disaster. That’s a great thing, and it’s because of Tom Izzo!

Sure there have been the first round losses and stories that Izzo can achieve more, but none of it takes away, at least for me, the excellent coach that the Northern Michigan native has turned into.

And then there is Pitino…


Is the only coach that taken 3 teams to the Final Four. Providence, Kentucky and Louisville
1 NCAA National Title in 1996
6 total Final Fours 1987, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2005, 2012
1 America East Tournament Title in 1983
2 America East Titles 1980, 1983
5 SEC Tournament Titles 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997
2 SEC Titles 1995, 1996
2 Conference USA Tournament Titles 2003, 2005
1 Conference USA Title in 2005
2 Big East Tournament Titles 2009, 2012
1 Big East Title in 2009
1 NABC National Coach of the Year 1987
1 John Wooden National Coach of the Year 1987
3 SEC Coach of the Year 1990, 1991, 1996
Conference USA Coach of the Year 2005

Pitino, like Izzo holds a very impressive, unique stat as the New York City native is 10-0 in games to get his teams to the Elite Eight.

Forget about the make-up, the suits and the “Success is a Choice” book which I read and tried to implement its teachings. Pitino is a great coach and has an aura of the ability to change the course of a program. Granted he has not won as many National Titles as you might expect but he comes close and like it or not that is what is celebrated in the NCAA tournament.

So who would you take?

Wait, before you answer let me give you one more stat, maybe it will change your mind?

Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino have butted heads 3 times with Izzo winning 2 of those games.

Both coaches are superstars who know how to motivate their players and are solid at the X’s and O’s. Pitino had success and failure in the NBA while Izzo flirted with the association but decided against it numerous times.

So who’s it going to be?

I go with Izzo, but its damn close!

It’s not the scandal that makes me pass on Pitino or even the fact that Izzo is younger so he will be around longer. The only reason I choose Izzo is because of his loyalty. Pitino, even at the age of 59 might be tempted to give the NBA one last go, doubtful but a possibility. Izzo on the other hand will continue to talk, think and make green and white people nervous about the NBA, but he will never leave.

Pitino is Hawaii, Providence, Boston, New York, Louisville, Kentucky and other schools and organizations. He has jumped around and has created an amazing legacy for himself, a legacy that could only be better if it all happened in one special place like it is for Izzo.

Comments (2)
  1. Travis says:

    Rick Pitino is a better recruiter than Izzo. If Pitino had came to Michigan, the program would not have been down so long, & probably would have another national title by now. TOM IZZO is perfect for Michigan State. In that situation, I believe that he is better than Pitino.

  2. bill says:

    Youth (relative youth anyway) and loyalty are big things in Izzo’s favor. Add in the fact that only two of Pitino’s final fours have been during the Izzo era (what have you done for me lately) and it adds up to Izzo over Pitino. They are both very good at what they do and there are very few coaches in history I would trade either one for.

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