SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — He was a year out of college, working as a graduate assistant coach at the University of Hawaii, making $13,000 a year and sharing a Honolulu apartment with five other guys.
That was Rick Pitino’s life in 1975.
But part of that life was crossing paths with a well-known, established college basketball coach. Jerry Tarkanian was already winning lots of games, and the following year with UNLV playing Hawaii, Tarkanian was going head-to-head with the young Pitino, who had been elevated to interim coach after Hawaii fired Bruce O’Neil 21 games into the 1975-76 season.
“I had no idea what I was doing and I’m coaching against one of the game’s great coaches,” Pitino said. “It was a little intimidating.”
The Rebels beat Hawaii 114-99. But Tarkanian was impressed with the young coach and how his team had played.
How impressed? Tarkanian offered Pitino a job on his staff for the 1976-77 season. But Pitino, who was from New York, was about to get married. His fiancee, Joanne, preferred to live back East, so Pitino instead took an assistant’s job at Syracuse. Tarkanian hired Al Menendez, who went on to have a successful career as an NBA assistant coach, scout and front office executive.
“If I was single, there’s no doubt I take it,” Pitino said. “It would have been amazing to have worked for Tark.”
Years later, UNLV would court Pitino again, this time to be its head coach. The pursuit lasted just a few days in early 2001 after Pitino was fired by the Boston Celtics. Pitino again said no, as the Pitinos had two young children and Joanne didn’t want to move further west than Kentucky. A few days after he turned down UNLV, Pitino accepted the job at Louisville.
While they never did work together, Pitino and Tarkanian both accomplished great things. On Sunday, they’ll be acknowledged for those accomplishments when they are inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Tarkanian saw something in Pitino even back in 1975.
“Rick was a smart guy,” he said. “You could tell he loved basketball. He was able to get his guys to really play hard and he got the most out of their talent. That’s why I wanted to bring him to Vegas. I thought he could really help us win.”
Pitino, the only college coach to win NCAA championships at two schools (Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville this year), never went head-to-head against Tarkanian after 1976. They had a chance to meet in the 1987 Final Four when Pitino took Providence to New Orleans and Tarkanian had Armon Gilliam, Freddie Banks, Gerald Paddio and Mark Wade leading UNLV. But neither team reached the title game, with the Rebels losing to Indiana in the semifinals and Providence losing to Syracuse.
UNLV and Providence played each other the following season, but Pitino was gone, having left to coach the New York Knicks.
Pitino said it was Tarkanian who showed him about how hard guys will play for a coach and about loyalty.
“Tark’s teams always played hard,” Pitino said. “They never let you get comfortable. They were always attacking at both ends of the floor. His pressure defense impressed me, and we’ve used elements of that in our teams over the years.
“Tark was also fiercely loyal to his players and I was so impressed by that. I think that’s why they played so hard for him.”
Pitino said Tarkanian was admired by fellow coaches for believing in his principles and his willingness to stand up to the NCAA. Pitino had his own brush with the NCAA while at Hawaii, being accused of providing extra benefits to players. Tarkanian, of course, was already battling the NCAA and he might have been a great source of information for Pitino.
“I never called him about it,” Pitino said of his NCAA issues, which did not derail his coaching career though the school was put on probation. “But I never judged Tark and I respected him for standing up to the NCAA.
“Obviously, it had a lot to do with him being kept out of the Hall of Fame for so long. He should have been in long ago.”
As should Pitino. But sometimes, things happen for a reason and the two coaches, who used to sit in hot gyms together watching high school players back in the mid-1970s, will be enshrined together.
“I remember I’d sit next to Tark in the gym and we’d talk and he’d say, ‘Who are you again?’ ” Pitino said, smiling. “I was a 22-year-old nobody and I’ll never forget his kindness to me, talking basketball, sharing his philosophies.
“Obviously, it’s a great honor to be going into the Hall of Fame. But it really is a privilege to be going into the Hall of Fame with him.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.