Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Century of Tradition: The Pitino Years

The Terriers travel to South Bend, Indiana this weekend for a Saturday night clash against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. With a Big East opponent on the horizon, let's take a look at BU basketball's biggest name -- the only coach in basketball who seems perfectly at home in a white suit. While I doubt he listens to ZZ Top, there's no question that Rick Pitino is a sharp dressed man.

The coaching legend graduated from UMass in 1974 after playing for former Terrier star Jack Leaman and alongside current Boston College head coach Al Skinner. Leaman, highly respected both in coaching circles and in the BU athletics community, helped Pitino get his first head coaching job at BU for the 1978-1979 season.

While the hockey team was preparing to attempt a defense of its 1978 national championship, the resources allotted Pitino upon his arrival were scant by comparison. BU had not managed a winning season since the 1972-73 campaign. In the last season before the Yankee Conference's dissolution for non-football sports, the Terriers struggled to a 3-9 conference record. Although the Terriers had Leaman's word that Pitino was a worthy coach, there was almost no track record on which to judge him -- the man who would become "Slick Rick" had been an assistant at Hawaii for one year and at Syracuse (under Jim Boeheim) for two.

Knowing Pitino's reputation, it's easy to deduce what happened during his five years at the helm, but at the time the turnaround was nothing short of remarkable. After starting the season 2-4 with a win over Massachusetts being the sole highlight, it was as if a switch had suddenly been flipped. The Terriers won nine of their next ten, set a school record by scoring 124 points against New Hampshire on February 17th, 1979, and finished their season with a 117-79 triumph over Assumption College. BU's 17 wins were its most since Leaman captained the 1958-59 team to the Elite Eight.

The following season, as would become typical for Pitino-coached teams, was even better. Steve Wright's senior year saw him average 19.8 points and 6 rebounds per game. Wright was a star, and under Pitino a supporting cast was emerging. In its first season competing in the ECAC North -- the predecessor to the North Atlantic Conference, itself the predecessor to the America East Conference -- Pitino's team won 21 games, finished first in the conference, and earned a berth in the NIT following a loss to Holy Cross in the conference tournament.

1980-81 was a down season as Pitino struggled to find a replacement for Wright. The Terriers finished the regular season at 13-13 before losing an epic triple-overtime playoff game against Vermont at a pseudo-neutral court (that year the ECAC North tournament was played in Burlington).

The dip in the standings, however, would not last long. The 1981-82 campaign saw improved fortunes. BU finished 19-9 and compiled a 6-2 record against the ECAC North, including a 82-64 win at Northeastern on January 26th, 1982 which handed the Huskies their only regular-season conference loss. The Terriers met the Huskies again in the semifinals, playing them tough before falling by a 49-48 score to the team coached by fellow legend Jim Calhoun.

1982-83, however, was Pitino's shining moment as the Terriers' head coach. In his fifth season in charge, BU equaled its 21-win mark from three years prior and closed the regular season with a 9-2 run to capture the conference title. After dispatching Vermont and Niagara, the Terriers drew Holy Cross in the conference finals. The Crusaders had sent BU to the NIT three years before, but this time the Terriers managed to hold on for a 63-62 win and an NCAA Tournament berth, the school's first in 24 years. BU lost its opening-round game to La Salle, 70-58, after which Pitino accepted a assistant coach position with the New York Knicks.

In total, Pitino amassed a 91-51 record at BU in five years and jump-started a program which had been mired in mediocrity for twenty years. Looking at the overall level of performance pre- and post-Pitino, the difference is evident. Prior to Pitino's arrival, no Terrier coach had managed a .500 winning percentage since Matt Zunic, whose tenure ended with the 1958-59 NCAA Tournament team. Post-Pitino, three of the four Terrier coaches have compiled winning records. Eight of the nine non-Pitino post-season tournament appearances have also occurred after his departure in 1983.

Maybe the white suit will make a return to The Roof. Odds are low -- Pitino has scheduled the Terriers just once in his 17-plus years coaching other institutions -- but even though BU has never squared off against the Louisville Cardinals, there's a first time for everything.

1 comment:

Terrier Fan 2008 said...

Excellent post. My favorite segment in this blog by far (beside the live game day blog). This is the kind of stuff I love learning about but never see. Keep up the good work.