Pitino to UMass? Keep dreaming
By Steve Buckley, The Boston Herald, 12/15/2000

It would be giving the Celtics too much credit to say they mailed it in against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night.

Mailed it in? These guys are too lazy to lick a postage stamp.

But let's not blame the players for this mess. They're lousy, and we all know they're lousy. Instead, let's put the focus where it belongs - on Rick Pitino, the man who assembled this maladroit cast of characters.

If Pitino were to step down today, his Celtics career would have begun with a heart-pounding victory over the defending world champion Bulls . . . and ended with a humiliating loss to the goin'-lottery Bulls. In between: catastrophe.

But how do we make the best out of a woefully bad situation? Well, check this out:

Scenario No. 1: Pitino steps down as head coach and president for life of the Celtics.

Scenario No. 2: Bruiser Flint gets the gate as head coach of another woefully bad outfit, the UMass men's basketball team.

Put Scenario No. 1 and Scenario No. 2 together, and what do you get?

Easy: Pitino making a triumphant return to Amherst as the new head coach of the Minutemen.

Does this have any chance of happening? No, of course not - and for millions of reasons, each one of them preceded by a dollar sign. While it's possible that both Pitino and Flint will be looking for new jobs next spring, chances are nil that Pitino will take Flint's old job.

Repeat: Pitino is not going to coach UMass next year. Out at UCLA, the guy who runs the equipment room already has a warmup suit and a whistle set aside for Pitino. And at Kentucky, the guy who runs the Wildcats' equipment room is probably doing the same thing. Just in case.

And while we're at it, there's a good chance that the guy who runs the UMass equipment room is stitching up a warmup suit with deposed UNLV coach Bill Bayno's name on it.

But now that we have the necessary disclaimers out of the way . . .

See, a lot of UMass alumni and basketball boosters are daring to dream the impossible dream. They've seen their basketball program turn into a rest stop on the Division 1 map, with the days of Marcus Camby, Lou Roe and others long in the past. Plus, a growing number of alumni are complaining about the UMass athletic department, which some believe has approached a dangerous level on the Arrogance Meter.

Thus, the ever-growing alumni fervor: ``If only we had Rick Pitino . . .'' Their argument grows not from the head, but the heart. Let's begin with the fact that Pitino played at UMass, back in the days of Julius Erving and Al Skinner in the wonderful old Curry-Hicks Cage. More to the point, Pitino's old basketball coach, the great Jack Leaman, is still associated with the school as a goodwill ambassador and analyst on the UMass basketball radio network.

So, there is some history here. We aren't talking about Pitino coaching Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont. We're talking UMass, and about Leaman, who discovered the skinny, 6-foot guard from St. Dominic's High School in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

The alumni also point out that Pitino has gone on record as saying he ``loves the area,'' that he'd even like to live in ``the area'' if he were not coaching. Of course the problem with this logic is that ``the area'' in which the Pitinos live is the area around a Back Bay townhouse. Pitino wasn't talking about Amherst, Sunderland or Pelham when he extolled the virtues of living in ``the area''; he was talking about Newbury Street.

But no matter. The starry-eyed alumni see what they choose to see. And they also see this: Pitino, with all the money he'll ever need already in the bank, returning to UMass for no other reason than because it would be a grand challenge, not unlike the Grenville Dodges and Charles Crockers who built the first transcontinental railroad.

Hyperbole? Of course. And, alas, there are other sad realities that fly in the face of a Pitino return to Amherst: He has no real ties to the university, other than to Leaman, and he's been said to be ticked off at UMass athletic officials (get in line, Rick) because they haven't gotten around to retiring Al Skinner's uniform number.

Leaman, who honed his basketball skills on the hot top at Cambridge's Columbia Terrace and later starred in the backcourt under Matt Zunic at Boston University (he was honored at halftime of last night's UMass-BU game), is on record as saying that Pitino won't be heading to Amherst any time soon - unless it's to attend a fund-raiser.

``Personally, I don't even think he's leaving the Celtics, in spite of what everyone is saying,'' said Leaman, though we should point out that Smilin' Jack made that comment before Wednesday's Celtics-Bulls game.

``And if he does coach college basketball next season,'' Leaman said, ``it's going to be at UCLA or Kentucky. It won't be Indiana.''

Leaman points out that even Pitino would have a tough time returning the Minutemen to the Final Four. He notes that UMass lacks the money to invest in the program and can't attract home games against national powers. As for the school's trip to the Final Four, Leaman said, ``They got lucky. They got Marcus Camby. That, plus the fact that John Calipari could get them all to play at an amazing level. I don't know if they can make that happen again.''

Maybe, maybe not. But, hey, Jack Leaman landed Dr. J. and Calipari landed Camby. Who's to say Pitino couldn't land the next national schoolboy basketball treasure?

Yeah . . . right. Not going to happen. No way.

But the Celtics are a mess and the UMass basketball program is a mess . . . and, around here, Pitino's reputation is a mess. He could cut his losses and move on, accepting a job with some sure-thing Div. 1 program. Or he could do the impossible and return to UMass.

It would be shocking. But it also would be the challenge of a lifetime, and, well, if you've read any of Pitino's books, then you know this guy is a big believer in big challenges.


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