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It’s a case of deja’ vu if report about Pitino’s interest in coaching UNLV proves true

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — Is Rick Pitino flirting with Nevada Las Vegas? Again?

Probably not. But if so, it wouldn’t be the first time he has entertained overtures from Sin City.

A report in Saturday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal cited an unnamed source who “insists (Pitino) is interested in the job,” 15 years after the school’s initial — and brief — courtship of the then-unemployed coach.

Would Rick Pitino consider UNLV again 15 years after declining an offer to become the Running Rebels head coach? (UofL Athletics Photo)

Would Rick Pitino consider UNLV again 15 years after declining an offer to become the Running Rebels head coach? (UofL Athletics Photo)

That was in 2001 shortly before Pitino was hired at the University of Louisville, where he is now in his 15th season.

The story, by UNLV beat writer Matt Youmans, admits that most observers will find the idea of Pitino moving to Vegas as “laughable and unrealistic,” but then goes on to list reasons why it may be a possibility.

Among them, Youman lists Pitino’s past and ongoing scandals, a desire to escape the shadow of Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose teams have beaten him eight of nine times, the need for a new challenge at 63 and the attractivness of UNLV for elite recruits.

Pitino’s only reaction to the story so far has been to say that his “only interest” is in beating Florida State, who UofL hosts Wednesday night.

Indeed, the idea of Pitino heading west seems far-fetched.

Former UNLV coach Dave Rice, who was fired a week ago, made $700,000 in base salary and speculation has been that the Runnin’ Rebels next coach would make around $1 million a year.

Pitino signed a 10-year contract extension last summer through the 2025-26 season worth a total of about $51 million. The new deal includes $7.5 million in retention bonuses that kick in every three years beginning in 2017.

But Youmans noted that Pitino has several influential friends in Las Vegas and if the richest and most powerful boosters of the program are serious, they would have no trouble kicking in money to cover a much higher salary.

“If Pitino is interested, the money would be there,” a source told the LVRJ.

Youmans didn’t mention any names, but one of Pitino’s friends is casino magnate Steve Wynn, owner of the Wynn and Encore luxury hotel-casinos. Pitino’s wife, Joanne, is also a friend of Elaine Wynn. The couple is divorced, but Elaine still lives in Vegas and is active in community affairs.

The article also suggested that Pitino might want to include Richard Pitino, 33, who is struggling in his third season at Minnesota, on his staff as the Rebels’ head coach-in waiting.

Aside from the lucrative, long-term contract and what appears to be a bright future for UofL this season, Pitino has frequently insisted that this is his last coaching job and expressed his gratitude to the fans and his loyalty to the UofL administration, expecially althletics director Tom Jurich, who has supported him at every turn.

The Cardinals are playing in the shadow of NCAA and internal investigations into allegations that former staffer Andre McGee paid for escorts, strippers and sex for recruits and players.

With both local and national media calling for Pitino to resign or be fired, he posted a blog on his personal website to fans in October, saying he “will not resign or let you down.”

“Someday I will walk away in celebration of many memorable years, but that time is not now,” Pitino wrote in part. “Let’s let the investigators do their job and we will play basketball.”

Writing in the LVRJ Sunday under a headline, “Pitino to UNLV speculation just wild enough to believe,” columnist Ed Graney said that while the idea of the Hall of Fame coach leaving a Top 25 program in the ACC for a rebuilding job at a Mountain West school seems preposterous, maybe it isn’t.

Graney noted that Youmans has impeccable sources, so there is probably some validity to the suggestion that Pitino is actually interested in the job. Graney went on to write that Pitino might desire an escape from the pressure and negative publicity of the current investigation, which (it says here) is almost certain to result in NCAA sanctions of one kind or another.

Graney wrote that UNLV has a responsibility to explore the option to pursue Pitino “until it is soundly rejected and both sides have moved on.”

Now for a short history lesson in the Pitino/UNLV relationaship.

After Pitino resigned as head coach and president of the Boston Celtics in 2001 and was looking to get back into the college ranks, he was being courted by then-UNLV athletic director Charles Cavagnaro.

In January of 2001, four days after Pitino resigned his position with the Celtics, The Boston Globe reported that he would be UNLV’s next coach, “barring unforeseen circumstances.”

Those circumstances apparently arose.

In late February, UNLV had a five-year contract worth approximately $1.6 million per year on the table awaiting some finishing touches and Pitino’s signature.

“I wanted to take it,” Pitino said during the 2009-10 season before the Cards met the Rebels in Las Vegas. “My wife did not. I really wanted to take the job. I was gung-ho about it. I thought this was a sleeping giant.”

If Joanne was reluctant before, what shortly transpired certainly didn’t help improve her feelings about UNLV.

While Pitino waited at their home in the Miami area, Joanne flew to Vegas for a two-day visit to give her stamp of approval. The story has probably been embellished over the years, but the basic facts are this:

Cavagnaro dropped Joanne off at the curb at McCarran International Airport and went on his way. Her flight was delayed, she could not reach anyone for help and was stuck at the airport for more than 12 hours.

“It was an unfortunate situation,” Pitino said. “It was really no one’s fault. What happened to her could happen to anyone. She could have gone to a hotel room, but you know how airlines are. They said the plane will leave in a couple of hours. Then, it was too late. Had to wait it out at the airport.”

Pitino said his wife passed the time sleeping and reading. Maybe if Cavagnaro had given Joanne the VIP treatment that normally occurs in those situations, things would have turned out differently.

However, Pitino says his wife being abandoned at the airport wasn’t the deciding factor. He said Joanne’s mother was ill and she wanted to stay east of the Mississippi River to be closer to her family.

“That was the primary concern,” Pitino said. “Our family situation took priority.”

Cavagnaro has said he never felt he was close to hiring Pitino.

“My understanding was it was all set up for him to go on to Louisville,” Cavagnaro told the Review-Journal back then.

“I have a big fondness for Las Vegas,” Pitino said six years ago. “It certainly didn’t work out for me. I was really interested in the job. I thought it was a great job. Lon (Kruger) taking them to the Sweet 16 (in 2007) backs that up.”

So Pitino obviously was intrigued at one time in his career by the attractiveness of coaching UNLV. Has that interest reawakened?

It seems doubtful, but as we all know, in sports and coaching moves, stranger things have happened anc circumstances change.

And if UNLV was willing to offer $1.6 million 15 years ago, surely it would have no trouble meeting Pitino’s salary demands now.


It didn’t take long for ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale to weigh in on the Pitino-to-UNLV rumor on Twitter, and he thinks the prospect is silly.

In his tweet, Dickie V wrote: “No way RICK PITINO will be next coach of UNLV/I have a better chance of being a sex symbol in Hollywood.”

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