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Rick Pitino, Louisville fans 'badly' want elusive national title

It has been 27 years since the Louisville Cardinals claimed their last national championship, and 16 years since Rick Pitino won his last title. Both of those facts could change in three days.

Kevin C. Cox

When the new inductees are announced this weekend in Atlanta, Rick Pitino's name will be among those that headline the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame's class of 2013. His resume demands it.

Pitino is the first coach - and the only coach according to the NCAA record books - to take three different programs to the Final Four. He has won over 600 Division-I games, reached the Final Four seven different times (1987, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2005, 2012 and 2013), led his teams to 22 postseason appearances and won ten conference tournament championships.

There's only one statistical category in which Pitino's record doesn't match up with his larger-than-life basketball staure: national titles.

Despite the fact that some believe the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats are the greatest college basketball team ever assembled, the championship Pitino won with that group still counts just once. Since that year, Pitino has gone 1-3 in the Final Four. He led his last Kentucky team to the '97 championship game, where they lost in overtime to Arizona, and both his 2005 and 2012 Louisville teams were beaten by superior squads in the national semifinals.

Given the weight his name carries, it's odd to think that Pitino has as many titles as guys like Steve Fisher and Jim Harrick, and one fewer than former player and assistant Billy Donovan.

His best opportunity to change that since he left Lexington for the NBA comes this weekend in Atlanta, where he'll attempt to lead Louisville - the tournament's No. 1 overall seed and the prohibitive favorites at the Final Four - to its first national championship since 1986.

In many ways, Pitino and the program he now leads are mirror images of one another.

Louisville created a solid reputation for itself in the 1960s and '70s, but when it fully burst onto the scene a decade later, the program took college basketball by storm. The Cardinal teams of the 1980s, dubbed by the media as "The Doctors of Dunk," are credited with popularizing both the slam dunk and the high-five. Their style and flair alone where enough to endear them to the rest of the country, but it also helped that they were winning, and winning big. U of L claimed national titles in 1980 and 1986, and went to the Final Four in 1982 and 1983. Their accomplishments were grand enough to earn the title of "Team of the '80s" from Sports Illustrated.

And then they were gone.

Louisville would make it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament just once in the 1990s, and two of Denny Crum's last four Cardinal teams finished the regular season with losing records.

Enter Pitino. The man who had once appeared poised to take over the college game with his fresh coaching style and brash demeanor, but who had since been properly humbled by a failed stint with the Boston Celtics. The pair weren't exactly at rock bottom when they hooked up, but they were both a far cry from where they'd been.

In 11 seasons, Pitino has returned Louisville to national prominence. He has led the Cardinals to their first AP No. 1 ranking, two overall No. 1 seeds, eight total conference championships and their eighth, ninth and now tenth Final Four appearances. But he hasn't yet led them to the promised land.

"I want to win a championship here badly," Pitino said at a press conference before the 2011-12 season. "Badly. Because this university has the best people I've ever worked with and this program has the best fans I've ever coached for."

As difficult it may be to fathom at this moment, as recently as a year-and-a-half ago there was a vocal contingent of U of L fans who believed that Pitino no longer deserved the right to pursue a title with the Cardinals.

When Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich landed Pitino in 2001, Cardinal fans were overwhelmed with images of grandeur of the U of L teams of the '80s and Pitino's Kentucky teams of the '90s. When a decade passed without some combination of those daydreams coming to fruition, there was some unrest.

Also working against Pitino was the fact that he wasn't considered by a large contingent of longtime fans to be enough of a "Louisville guy." These were fans who grew up with Denny Crum, the man who came to Louisville from UCLA and instantly fell madly in love with it. The one who turned down the chance to go back to LA and lead the most storied program in all of college basketball because he'd become too ingrained in the U of L program and the city in which it resides. The one who still shows up to every Cardinal home game in his trademark red sweater vest.

Pitino was not that guy. In fact, he was about the furthest thing possible. He screamed, he wore fancy suits, he was constantly considered a legitimate candidate for other jobs; basically, he gave the impression of a man who believed himself to be larger than the program he coached.

Then something changed.

The common belief is that being adequately humbled by the off-the-court events that followed him for the bulk of 2009 and 2010 are the foundation for Pitino's transformation, and I think that's part of it. I think the support he received from the city and the university in the wake of those events has played a role as well. Above all else, though, it's this current group of Cardinal players that deserve the lion's share of the credit for the birth of "Louisville Rick."

Before the likes of Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith arrived on campus, Pitino had spoken multiple times about his desire to retire the next time his contract was up. He also admitted after the fact that he had nearly called it quits after an erratic 2009-10 season which ended with a first-round loss to California in the NCAA Tournament.

A year later, after a less talented but scrappier group of Cardinals had clawed their way to a Big East Tournament title game appearance and a four seed in the big dance, Pitino seemed to have achieved some sort of peace with the state of things. He created the "Louisville First" brand, a motto which appeared on just about every piece of apparel made for his team. He smiled more, he talked openly about "having fun" with his players and he eventually signed a contract extension to stay at U of L for another 10 years.

The best evidence of Rick Pitino's metamorphosis can be caught just before the opening tip-off of any U of L game these days. It's then that he'll walk down the sidelines giving "knuckles" to each one of his players and assistant coaches. Two years ago, it was nearly impossible to imagine Pitino sauntering down to the business class section of the bench for anything less than a verbal dress down or a better view of the action on the court.

Louisville fans loved Pitino when he was hired because he assured better days for a program that was clearly headed in the wrong direction. The promise of winning was the only asset that could make the group overlook the fact that he had lifted their arch-rivals out of the depths caused by probation and back to the top of the college basketball world.

The love affair between the coach and his fans is more intense today because it's more complex. Sure, the fact that the Cardinals are about to play in the Final Four for a second-straight season helps, but even the most hesitant of U of L fans has fallen head over heels for the new "Louisville Rick." They love the fact that he came up with the nickname "Russdiculous" for star guard Russ Smith and they love that he shed tears when sophomore guard Kevin Ware broke his leg against Duke in the Elite Eight. More than anything though, Cardinal fans love that "Louisville" and "First" are now words best embodied by the man who initially shoved them together. He's a Louisville guy himself, not just a person who works with and for them.

Rick Pitino and Louisville fans have made little effort to hide their shared desire for getting back to the championship-winning ways of their respective pasts. Perhaps they just needed to get on the same page in order for it to happen.

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