By LARRY VAUGHT
Jared Prickett was a freshman on Kentucky’s 1993 Final Four team that was honored at Rupp Arena Saturday. Not every player on that team that lost to Michigan’s Fab Five in New Orleans to end its dazzling NCAA Tournament run.
Rick Pitino, Kentucky’s coach that season, was not at the ceremony honoring the team despite a personal invitation from Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Pitino left UK for the Boston Celtics after the 1996-97 season and then eventually returned to college coaching at Louisville. He won a title with the Cards — that has now been vacated. He’s also had other personal and professional issues.
Still, Prickett remains a Pitino backer.
“Everybody has ups and downs in life,” Prickett said. “I saw Coach at our 96 reunion and he was doing well.”
Prickett recalled how strict Pitino was “with us and strict with us in everything we did and not allowing anything of that nature to be around the program.” He said it was an “unfortunate situation” that got Pitino in trouble.
Former UK guard Dale Brown was a junior college recruit Pitino brought to Kentucky. He’s coached college basketball himself since his playing career ended.
Brown said he had “nothing negative” to say about Pitino.
“I love that guy,” Brown said.
He recalled how when he was coaching at Henry County High School that Pitino “snuck in” to watch him and then stayed to hug him after the game.
“Great guy. He did special things for us and will always have a special place in my heart,” Brown said.
After Saturday’s win over Utah, Calipari said he hoped there would be a time Pitino would feel comfortable returning to UK and that UK fans would graciously welcome him back since he got UK to the Elite Eight in 1992 and 1995, Final Four in 1993 and 1997 (UK lost in the title game) and won the national title in 1996.
But would Kentucky fans welcome Pitino back with the open arms and graciousness that Calipari believes?
Here’s a few responses I got from a totally random sampling of fans about how they would feel if Pitino came back to UK to be honored and while many say they would be okay with it, I’m not sure it might not take at least a few more years for the timing to be right.
“I think most of the fans from the Pitino era would have the maturity to welcome him back to Rupp and celebrate his time at Kentucky,” Debbie Stapleton said. “I felt really betrayed when he took the Louisville job but that doesn’t negate how I loved him at Kentucky! I would even say hang a jersey (in his honor).”
“I love Cal and I have respect for Rick for what he did for the program but not sure other UK fans feel the same,” Beth Rawe said.
“He’s an embarrassment to the game and there’s no sense in associating ourselves with him. We owe him nothing and stand to gain nothing,” Andrew Heath said.
“I agree that he brought us back from nowhere, but there’s been a lot of water go under the bridge since. He did Give us the ‘Dirty Bird’ finger his last visit to Rupp and I feel that along with Rick just being Rick would get him plenty of boos, me included,” said Steve Lentz.
“What Rick did at UK is the point here. I have always said once he leaves UofL he is welcomed back. People have to remember how bad things looked after the NCAA dropped the hammer in 1989. In just two seasons UK was a contender,” Terry Cook said.
“In terms of honoring his contributions to UK basketball, I’m okay with him returning. It was a great era. He’s earned that recognition. He’s not currently attached to Louisville, so go for it.” Brian Eldridge said.
“He (Calipari) thought he was going to get (James) Wiseman as well. Coach can’t be right all the time,” Steve Johnston said.
“I loved Pitino when he was at UK. He saved the basketball program. When he went to Boston I was not happy at all. When he went to Louisville I was beyond mad. Ive made jokes about him with his personal life. I agree with some that right now is not the right time but in the near future we as UK fans should welcome him back at least one time,” Jarrod Taylor said.
“UK fans should welcome him back. He brought us back in less than three years. A coach should be able to work at any school he wants. The fans should thank him for doing what he did for our program. Thank you Cal for inviting him back, it was the right thing to do,” John Ferguson said.
“I respect Rick (in terms of basketball) for what he did for UK. However, the animosity from UK fans toward Rick is a direct result of his behavior after leaving the program. I’m not sure Rick would show up any way,” Kevin Conley said.
“I think he should be welcomed for reviving our program— I think he needs a hand to get up from the mat. He’s not at UL anymore and we shouldn’t kick a man while he’s down,” Dan Burch said.
“He turned our program around, bring him back,” Bruce Richardson said.
Hopefully there will be a time that can happen — just like hopefully there will be a time Memphis fans can welcome Calipari back for what he did for that program before leaving for UK.