By Jeff Riger
Stop me if you heard this one before.
The year was 2001, Michigan basketball finally made the right decision and parted ways with Brian Ellerbe — and a man that could have saved the program was out there. In fact, that man had already told Bill Martin, the athletic director at the time, that he would take the job in Ann Arbor. Of course this mystery man’s wife had other ideas and demanded him to coach at Louisville instead, and the rest is history as they say.
Of course that man is Rick Pitino and of course he eventually cheated on the wife who forced him to stay in the great state of Kentucky, but you already knew that, as well.
Later tonight, Pitino will coach his Louisville Cardinals against Michigan, which finally after 20 seasons is back in the championship game. Pitino is trying to become the first coach ever to win a national title with two schools (he won with Kentucky in 1996) while John Beilein is trying to do something that nobody thought was ever possible, bring Michigan basketball back to not only respectability, but greatness. I still can’t believe it as I sit here typing this blog.
Now, I have stated this before, but because of the circumstances, let me repeat myself. Every guy has that girl who got away, that girl that they still think about no matter how old they are and wonder “what if”? Well, as strange as this sounds, Pitino, to me is the coach who got away. I remember 2001. I listened to the radio the entire day hoping to get word that Pitino was choosing Michigan.
I remember what I was driving, where I was driving to and even what I was wearing. I didn’t look as good as Pitino does in one of those $7,000 Armani suits, but I held my own. I remember hearing Dick Vitale come on one of the shows that I was listening to and report that Pitino was headed to Michigan. I was elated! I was shocked! I knew the program had been saved!
Well, it wasn’t even 15 minutes later when Vitale came back on the same show and reported that Pitino was out at Michigan, instead he was heading to Louisville. I was heartbroken. I actually felt like my girlfriend at the time had broken up with me. Hell, I would have broken up with her if it meant that Michigan would have landed Pitino. I know it sounds pathetic, but what do you want from me? I was like 23.
So there I was, all alone and the program that I rooted so hard for was forced to exercise Plan B, which was to hire Tommy Amaker.
With Amaker at the helm, things didn’t get better. Sure, Coach K’s protege had some decent recruits like Daniel Horton, Lester Abram, Brent Petway, Dion Harris and even Manny Harris but they never could win. In Amaker’s 6 years on the job he tore up the NIT tournament but never made it to the NCAA tournament. It was awful! After the Fab Five got busted for cheating, along with Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor, Louis Bullock and others, I watched year after year of garbage hoops and Amaker could not make it any better. I am prepared to go over the numerous names that I’m sure everybody has blocked out of their minds, but why bother? It’s just too damn depressing,
After Amaker was fired, Michigan went out and hired Beilein and all I knew about him was he ran a whacking 1-3-1 zone at times and he coached one West Virginia team that ended up going to the Elite 8. Ironically enough, the only guy he ever sent to the NBA played on that team, Kevin Pitsnogle who to this day is always brought up when Beilein and the Mountaineers are talked about.
Beilein has done a great job at Michigan. We all know what he has accomplished. He got much needed facilities, he was able to recruit better athletes and he consistently, at least lately has made the NCAA tournament. All is now good, at least for the time being and now he is about to coach in the National Title game. It really is a job well done!
But what about Pitino?
It seems like I should not care anymore that he went to Louisville and never came to Michigan. But I do.
Pitino took over for a Louisville legend in Denny Crum who struggled to make the tournament or get out of the first round in his last four years on the job. Since Pitino has been there, Louisville has made the tournament 10 of 12 seasons while going to 3 Final Fours and 2 Elite Eights. He and his program have been great. And, why wouldn’t they be? Pitino is a hall of famer who has taken three schools to Final Fours and now as I mentioned earlier, could be the first ever coach to win a title with two different schools.
He would have done the same at Michigan, I’m convinced of that.
So when I was asked just yesterday if I still wanted Pitino in Ann Arbor instead of Beilein, I answered with a resounding YES.
My reasoning seems logical, at least I think it does. While the present is great, I find it hard to forget about the past and keep from wondering “what could have been?” If Pitino would have chosen Michigan, I am certain the last 12 years of my college basketball-watching life would have been a lot more exciting and one night, even if it results in a championship banner, will not make up for that.
Or will it?