LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tony Delk played for eight NBA teams but says he never had a better X’s and O’s coach than Rick Pitino. Delk still teaches Pitino’s drills to his own children. Delk figures he wouldn’t be the man and father he is today without the life lessons Pitino taught him at the University of Kentucky.
And yet there he was Wednesday, like so many former Wildcats, grappling with the stark contrast between the young King of Camelot for whom they played in the 1990s and this aging, disgraced Pitino placed on unpaid leave — ahead of an almost-certain firing — at the University of Louisville amid a federal investigation and allegations of six-figure promises to recruits.
“I don’t think any of the former players saw that happening,” said Delk, who helped Pitino and Kentucky win the 1996 national title and is the Wildcats’ all-time leading 3-point shooter. “I think you’ve got to look at what he did for Kentucky when they were on probation, coming in and changing the program, changing the culture, recruiting some of the best players in the country.”
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That’s the irony of it all now, that Pitino rose to prominence — and hero status in this state — by leading the proud Wildcats back to power, out of the wilderness of heavy NCAA sanctions, allowing that program to puff its chest out again rather than bow its head in shame. And now, after guiding the state’s other major program to a national championship in 2013, he’ll leave the Cardinals in shambles, saddled with NCAA sanctions, likely stripped of that title.
“It’s unfortunate that this scandal will maybe be what brought him down and his legacy will be tarnished,” Delk said. “As players, we are always going to have Coach P’s back. What he did for Kentucky: He brought them a championship, Final Four appearances, got them back on top and left the program in a good place. When he got there, it wasn’t in a good place. So give him credit for what he did there. He cleaned up the program. What happened in Louisville, he has a few scandals that he has to deal with there, but that’s not on Kentucky’s clock.”
Which is to say, Pitino’s legacy in Lexington should remain intact. That seems to be a consensus among his former players. Pitino’s jersey in the Rupp Arena rafters and his place in the UK Athletics Hall of Fame appear safe, according to a statement from the school.
What has happened since Pitino went to Louisville in 2001 — he’s had a personal sex scandal, team sex scandal and now allegations that two coaches on his staff were in the business of buying recruits — “shouldn’t bother nothing he did at Kentucky,” said Anthony Epps, point guard of the ’96 title team. “What he did at Kentucky is what he did at Kentucky, and then he left. Everything that’s going on now is at U of L.”
And how will Epps remember his Hall of Fame coach now that the narrative has changed so dramatically over the last two decades?
“I’ll remember the Rick Pitino I had at Kentucky,” he said. “The one that gave me a chance to play college basketball, that offered me a scholarship. The one that was there for me.”
Coincidentally, Delk had already been meaning to reach out to Pitino. He’s working on a book and wanted his old coach to contribute. That phone call will now be delayed — and far more awkward. Epps plans to send a text “and tell him I still support him.”
When reached by SEC Country on Wednesday afternoon, former Kentucky star Derek Anderson was also trying to make contact with Pitino.
“I’m not speaking on it right now,” Anderson said, “because I haven’t spoken with him yet. I need to figure out what’s going on. I don’t want to say that the memories are just gone because of whatever happened there.”
UPDATES: We’ll be adding other former players’ memories to the bottom of this story as we get them.
Cameron Mills, a member of the 1996 championship team, acknowledged that Pitino’s place in the college basketball landscape will be different now, but that what he did for Kentucky shouldn’t be forgotten.
“Since he became coach at UK, I don’t remember there ever being any kind of investigation, any kind of scandal, anything like that while he was here,” Mills said. “It’ll certainly affect his reputation at Louisville and his career overall, but I don’t think it should have anything to do with UK.”
Mills said he’s talked to his former coach more in the last two years than he did in the previous 18 after playing for Pitino. He plans to text Pitino on Wednesday night, but doesn’t know what he’ll say.
“Part of what’s important for anybody who goes through something like this is that people still care about you and people still love you,” Mills said. “I don’t know what the other guys said but I think all of us in our last 20 years have probably grown to appreciate him more and more as time’s gone on.”