Pitino gives tough-luck assistant huge lift

The words kept coming out of Rick Pitino’s mouth, but it had gotten to the point that they were indiscernible to Mike Balado.

Louisville’s head coach was recalling a story back in the day when he was Boston University’s head coach and was passed over for the Penn State job.

It was an attempt to put what Balado had endured over the previous couple of weeks in perspective, to make the now-unemployed assistant coach feel at peace with his current situation.

“I had no idea where he was going with it,” Balado said. “It was a great story, but I had no idea how it related.”

Balado was all set to go to Minnesota with Richard Pitino after spending last season on his staff at Florida International. Balado wasn’t certain of his role, but the 37-year-old had a standing offer to join the Gophers in some capacity -- most likely as the director of basketball operations. Balado even went to Minnesota for nearly a week, but he was still being pursued by FIU athletic director Pete Garcia to remain in the program with new coach Anthony Evans.

Then came a late-night meeting with Evans the night before his introductory news conference. Balado was under the impression that he had a job offer to remain at FIU as a full-time assistant, and he even informed Pitino that he would be returning to FIU and the Miami area, where he’d spent the majority of his life, and therefore wouldn’t need to uproot his family.

However, after failing to hear anything from Evans for a couple of days, he became concerned and called the younger Pitino in hopes he could still have the director of basketball operations spot. The only issue was that Pitino had moved quickly and already filled the opening with Steve Goodson, a holdover from the Tubby Smith regime.

That’s when Balado had to tell his wife, Alicia, that he was in limbo without a D-I job.

“I was kicking myself for not staying at Minnesota,” Balado said.

“A coach's life is a roller-coaster ride,” Alicia Balado said. “You know what you sign up for, and it’s not always fun. It’s crazy, but I believe in Mike and knew that whatever happened, we’d be fine.”

Balado and his wife have 4-year-old twins. He’s been in the business for about 15 years, with stops at Nova Southeastern, Miami Dade Junior College, Florida Atlantic, High Point and, most recently, FIU.

However, now he was on the verge of taking an assistant job at Division II Barry University in Miami for $18,000 a year and also having to supplement his income as a personal trainer at the local YMCA.

Rick Pitino was aware of Balado's situation after hearing of the turn of events from his son. He had heard all about Balado's work ethic, high character and, most of all, unwavering loyalty.

“I was distraught,” Richard said. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through since I’ve gotten into the business.”

So Rick Pitino called Balado and asked him to make the drive to Pitino's Miami home early one April morning.

“I knew what was going to happen,” Richard said. “I just know my dad.”

But Balado and his wife had no clue.

That’s when Pitino began reciting the story, the one in which former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno wooed a young Pitino way back in the early 1980s -- only to be disappointed when he didn’t get the job.

Finally, Pitino got to the point, telling Balado how it all worked out, and how shortly after being spurned by Penn State, Pitino was brought into the NBA by Hubie Brown as an assistant with the New York Knicks.

“Some things happen for a reason,” Pitino told Balado. “Good things sometimes come from misfortune.”

Then he pulled out a trio of $100 bills from his wallet and handed them to Balado, insisting he take his wife out for a nice dinner after the brutal few weeks the couple had recently endured.

Balado politely declined, having too much pride to take charity.

“You can afford it now,” Pitino said. “You’re an assistant coach at Louisville.”

Balado still couldn’t process what Pitino was saying. Here he was on the verge of having to struggle to make ends meet -- and now he was being hired as a full-time assistant with the defending national champions, earning a salary in excess of $200,000.

Balado broke down in tears before calling his wife, a high school teacher.

“I don’t think he thought it was real,” Alicia Balado said.

“He was crying like a baby,” Richard Pitino recalled. “He went from Barry University to Louisville.”

“It was great to be able to do it for someone,” Rick Pitino said. “But I did it because he was the type of person I wanted to hire. I like Mike a lot and know he’s going to be a very good coach at Louisville.”

So instead of spending the July recruiting period trying to identify and persuade Division II players to sign, Balado went on the road to watch high school stars who could help keep Louisville in national title contention.

“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I’m not naive. I know a lot of people are a lot more qualified than me.

“But I’m going to prove to Coach Pitino every single day that he made the right choice to hire me."