Rick Pitino has now had one group of Kentuckians or another in denial of his greatness for nearly a quarter of a century -- Louisville fans rooting against him when he coached Kentucky in the late '80s until 1997, and Kentucky fans since 2001 when he took over in Louisville. Though the commonwealth of Kentucky will likely always be divided on the topic, Pitino's merits as one of the game's greatest coaches are now difficult to argue even for the most extreme fans on either side of the Red vs. Blue debate.
Before Monday, no coach had won a national championship with two different schools. Pitino finally clinched it in his third trip to the Final Four as the Louisville coach, falling short in the semifinals in 2005 and 2012 (to Kentucky, no less) before winning Saturday's semifinal against the Wichita State Shockers and Monday's final over the Michigan Wolverines.
Monday's win over Michigan felt as inevitable as it did deserved. His teams have become so well known for their ability to play from behind, whether it was in the 2013 Big East tournament final (down 16 in the second half to the Syracuse Orange only to win by 17) or a regular-season SEC game in 1994 (down 31 to the LSU Tigers only to win by five). And when the Wolverines took a 12-point lead in the first half, the Cardinals were calm, a logical extension of their coach. Pitino took the right timeouts, knowing exactly the right buttons to push. From the instant Michigan took a 35-23 lead with 3:24 until halftime, the Cardinals knew exactly how to respond once they were given the signal to go. They closed the half on a 14-3 run and trailed 38-37 at halftime.
Throughout Monday's title game, Pitino pushed each button exactly the way it had to be pushed. When Russ Smith was 1-for-9 from the floor in the first half, he didn't start the second half. Each timeout from the Louisville bench seemed to be called at the right time, and the Cardinals seemed to always execute the first play out of the timeout to perfection.
It wasn't all a breeze for Pitino. He did get a bit of a scare after the final horn (hover to animate GIF):
But at that point, the game had already been won. Pitino's legacy as one of the most accomplished college coaches in the game's history had added to its headline: only coach ever to win a title at two schools. If both fan bases put aside petty grievances and fought for the rest of time which school could claim his legacy, it'd be a fight worth fighting.