NEW ORLEANS — I spent a few weeks with Rick Pitino last season. For a magazine profile. Followed him around the country, stayed near his home in Lexington, Ky. Got to know him. Ate lots of meals together. You know what I remember most — besides the fact that he loves Italian food? I remember people like the manager of his restaurant, who moved down from Providence to be with Pitino, or his secretary, who moved down from New York to be with Pitino, or his former players, who came from wherever to be with Pitino. Hanging around this guy is like taking catnip to a feline convention. Before long, you’re surrounded by purring.

And that scares me, if I’m the Michigan Wolverines, because the man has this same effect on his Kentucky players — with one added dimension: They will go through fire for him.

And that’s often how you win in college sports. Or do the names Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler and Bobby Knight not ring a bell?

I don’t know what it is about Pitino, the son of a New York city truck driver, whose thick accent qualifies him for “Cawwfee Tawwk” on “Saturday Night Live.” I don’t know where he gets this charisma. It could be his Al Pacino looks, his quick laugh, his ability to make some grandmother from Paducah feel like she’s the most important person in the room.

It could be his age (40.) Or the stories he tells. After all, he did coach Patrick Ewing with the Knicks. College kids are impressed. His star player at Kentucky, Jamal Mashburn, decided to enroll after meeting Pitino just once.

“You used to be Knicks coach,” he said.

Pitino said yeah, but —

“I’ll come. The Knicks are my team.”

It was pretty much that simple. A will to win

But even before Pitino got his NBA credentials, he had an amazing touch, spinning magic everywhere he went. He turned Boston University around while he was young enough to be a grad student. He took Providence to the Final Four in just two seasons. He got the Knicks to stop arguing long enough to win the Atlantic Division. And — his biggest miracle to date — he raised Kentucky from the dead in less than four years, from probation and lousy players to a Final Four favorite. They aren’t beating teams, they’re wiping them off their shoes. The average margin of victory for UK in this tournament: 31 points.

“We’ve had fun since arriving here” a few days ago, Pitino said Friday.
“We’re here to have fun. And try to win.”

Forgive him if he mixes the two together. But that’s why Pitino does so well in Kentucky. To him, basketball is work and fun. He is one of the few coaches I know who actually plays the game himself, every morning, with his staff, usually before the sun rises. By the way, he’s a workaholic.

More important, Pitino has convinced his Wildcats team, which can go 10 deep, that fun-and-gun is the way the game should be played. You wonder why Michigan gets so much flak about its loose style, when Kentucky goes bombs away from the opening whistle. Maybe it’s because the Wildcats also press on defense. Or because they have overachievers such as 5-foot-9 Travis Ford instead of a 6-foot-8 Jalen Rose, who always labors under enormous expectations.

Or maybe it’s because in Kentucky, Pitino, not the athletes, is the biggest star. Steve Fisher doesn’t grab the spotlight in Ann Arbor. There are no Fisher restaurants, or autobiographies, or T-shirts, or commercials, or billboards. Pitino has all that in Lexington. He is bigger than the Derby. The year he took over, he had a new house built; traffic jams formed around the construction site. Someone stole a pile of dirt and auctioned it off on a radio station.

There’s a difference for you. With Michigan, they dig for dirt. In Kentucky, they auction it to the highest bidder. Changing places

So, OK. Who is this Pitino guy, Superman? He does nothing wrong? He wins wherever he goes? Come on. What’s his weakness?

Well. To date, it’s been leaving before his blueprints dry. He left Boston U. for a Knicks assistant job. Left that for the Providence gig. Left that to be Knicks head coach. Left that for Kentucky. He has never won a championship. He has only been to one NBA playoffs, and one Final Four. Today marks a huge day in the growth chart of Rick Pitino — not his legend, but his actual accomplishments.

And maybe that’s where Michigan has the edge. Fisher might be less exciting, but he has been to this mountaintop. He has won it all. And his Wolverines can only hope that a Pitino- driven machine shows some leaks when it gets into the deep water.

Otherwise, I don’t know how you top the guy. Pitino’s last run at the Final Four, back in ’87, he scouted an Alabama team that seemed so awesome, he left the game at halftime grumbling, “There’s no way we beat these guys.” Yet two days later, he was before his Providence team, yelling, screaming, scolding them that to lose to Alabama would be beneath them. Final score: Providence 103, Alabama 82.

You can just imagine his speech for Michigan.

“His philosophy with us is ‘just go out and enjoy yourself,’ ” says junior guard Jeff Brassow.

Can you win it all way?

I wouldn’t want to coach against him.

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