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December 06, 2001

For Pitino, quitting was choice
By Dan Patrick

Of all the coaches who have quit or threatened to quit this season, Rick Pitino, to me, was the least likely to walk. If only because of the position he put himself in with his best-selling book, "Success is a Choice." I bought the book. I read the book. But I'm still waiting on the sequel for the chapter on quitting. Success may be a choice. Apparently resigning is as well.

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino, right, and the Celtics' players didn't always see eye-to-eye.

The recent events at the Fleet Center seem to prove that today's professional athlete won't listen to Rick Pitino. In college, a coach has a captive audience. Even the star player will listen to you for at least a year before he goes pro.

In the pros, where most of the players make more than most of the coaches, a lot of the roster will tune out the coach. And it isn't hard to see why. Guys making $8 million or $9 million a year have more power than a guy pulling down $800,000. They don't listen because they know they would win the power struggle.

So that's exactly what the Celtics did. They didn't buy into Pitino's system or his dictatorship. They didn't want to play his game and they didn't.

Keep in mind that when Pitino took over this Celtics team four years ago, the 76ers were the worst team in the Atlantic Division. Well, the Sixers are now the best team in the Atlantic Division and you can even make a case that they're the best team in the East right now.

Back then the Celtics were the second-worst team in the division. And that's just about where they are now. But that's not coach Pitino's fault. That is GM Pitino's fault. Pitino the GM drafted Chauncey Billups and gave Travis Knight $22 million. And Pitino the coach is the one who couldn't motivate these players. Players like Antoine Walker who tuned him out. Walker took the GM's money but wouldn't play for the coach.

After last season, when he was making the rounds with his book, I told him I couldn't see him as a professional coach. I saw him as a college coach. While he didn't disagree, he said the job wasn't finished in Boston. Now that it is finished, I think the point has been made. Rick Pitino is not an NBA coach anymore.

Believe me, I understand the frustrations he went through dealing with that team. Maybe Pitino would have been a great NBA coach had he landed Tim Duncan. Maybe the difference between Pitino being a great pro coach in Boston is a ping-pong ball that fell San Antonio's way and not the Celtics'. I'm not sure. So instead of getting Tim Duncan they get Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer out of that draft -- and neither one is still with the team.

Is that how fragile the coach's job is in the pros -- who you have? And while Pitino the GM can be criticized for the players that he drafted or traded for or signed, Pitino the coach did not do himself any favors by installing a system of pressing and getting players who couldn't play that system.

But I don't think he's lost his touch. I just think there may be some limits on who he can coach, where he can coach and for how long he can coach. He'll be a savior to some program in the college ranks. He'll pick his spot, where he has a chance to win a conference or get enough wins to go to the tournament. He'll raise hope that he can be a miracle-worker again like he was at Boston University, Providence and Kentucky. He'll do that again, guaranteed.

Rick Pitino may be one of those reclamation guys. Revive a program or a team and then move on. ... Maybe that's his comfort level.

But Rick Pitino does have limits. He coached the Knicks successfully for two seasons (from 1987 to 1989), but the game has changed. Pitino hasn't and neither has what he demands from a player or a team. But the players have changed. He may have to change as well if he ever goes back to the pros.

As far as college goes, he'll go back to that world and be a success.

One thing he'll have to do in the future is change his paid motivational spiel. Because you can't give motivational speeches at upwards of $40,000 a pop and talk about success being a choice when you quit on a losing team that you could not turn around.

Another thing we may know about Rick Pitino is that he may be one of those reclamation guys. Revive a program or a team and then move on. I don't know if he is that kind of coach, but looking at his recent track record, maybe he is. Maybe that's his comfort level. Maybe he wants to get out before he wears out his welcome or before they figure him out. Or as he didn't do in this case, before they tune him out.

I think he'll be back in a big way, but this is the one blemish on his resumé. I think Pitino the Celtics GM would have fired Pitino the Celtics coach and I think Pitino the GM would have been fired by management given the job that he did. He should have been fired from both jobs. He did the next best thing. He quit. And after all of his time and effort in Boston, Pitino found that simply wanting to be successful is not enough.

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