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Pitino Is a Lord of Discipline

March 01, 1987|FREDERICK WATERMAN | United Press International

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — He has the fresh-faced, choir-boy looks of the first-day cop -- the kind who believes that shined shoes, pressed shirts and "sir" are important.

Rick Pitino demands discipline, manners and honesty from his Providence College basketball team. In his philosophy, these are the building blocks for victory, which he declares "is secondary, it really is," then concedes, "but that's how I keep my job."

In his second year as the Friars coach, Pitino has revived a moribund program. In 1985 he left an assistant's job with the New York Knicks to take over an 11-20 team. Last year, Providence was 17-14 and this season it won 18 of its first 24 games.

Assistant coach Gordon Chiesa explained, "We thought it would take three or four years to make it all work, now it's happened so quickly. It's taken two years and we're riding the crest."

By coaching in the highly visible Big East, Pitino has received immediate attention for his success. Though known as an excellent recruiter and scout, Pitino talks of neither ability when explaining why the Friars are on the fringes of the nation's Top 20 polls.

"You can see the sayings of Vince Lombardi that I have had put up all around here," says Pitino, while sitting behind his desk in the college's basketball offices. "And I really believe he was right in his philosophy."

On the door of the team's locker room is the quote: "Character is the direct result of mental attitude. I believe that character is higher than intellect. I believe that leadership is in sacrifice, in self-denial, in humility and in the perfectly disciplined will. This is the distinction between Great and Little Men."

"I teach my players to take their hats off, the right clothes to wear and the proper manners. When they come over to my house, they bring my wife roses and they write her a thank-you card afterwards.

"I base whether you love your players on how much discipline you give them. If you keep letting them get away with things, you don't love them. It's almost like your own children.

"The single most important quality for success is discipline," says Pitino. "You've got to understand, basketball is not a game; it is a way of life that goes onto a different life and a different game. If you're sound fundamentally in basketball, you'll be sound fundamentally in the other part of your life."

Pitino's perspective is not spoken with the zeal of the obsessed, but with calm and patience.

Contrary to this impression are the facts of his past -- when he ordered practices immediately after bad games at Boston University where he coached from 1978 to 1983; when he postponed his honeymoon to recruit a high-school star named Louis Orr; when he was screaming at his players, pushing them to the edge of tears.

"Some kids may very well hate him because of the drive, but they respond to him," says Ed Carpenter, sports information director at Boston University. "He got things out of players that somebody else would never have gotten. He drove them to the point where they reached their potential and beyond.

"I've never seen anybody more driven or more committed to one end, and he drove those people around him. That unbelievable drive -- we used to fear he was going to suffer the big one right there on the sidelines. We used to take bets on when he would pull his jacket off -- the quickest was 15 or 20 seconds into the game."

When Pitino was at Boston University, Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun was at rival Northeastern. The coaches were not friends, once almost coming to blows during a game.

"From Day One, Rick Pitino came into Boston and said, 'I'm going to take over the town.' That is what he's like, someone with 24-hour intensity. Providence is the perfect setting for him because everybody wants to build something and Providence basketball is the biggest thing in the state," said Calhoun.

Quite evident to Pitino is the Friars' pre-eminent position in Rhode Island's athletic hierarchy.

"Because we don't have a pro team, for some people this is their pro team. This is the No. 1 form of sports entertainment in the state. So, they sometimes look at the Providence College Friars as if they are pros," he explained.

Pitino may not have professional talent on his team, but his offensive and defensive formations are exceptionally sophisticated.

Chiesa said, "The mentality here is pro basketball. We have an open pro-type running game, a Denver Nuggets motion offense and we're pressing and running always. Because of that we might do well in the NCAAs, because it's a hard style to play against.

"A team from the Southeast region, for example, that heard of us but never played against our style might have a hard time. For us, the NCAAs might be easier than the Big East. Not easy, but easier."

Pitino inherited what Calhoun calls "a lot of good players who he has made into a great team. He didn't have a great kid in the group, but his strong suit is to develop kids."

Friars guard Billy Donovan is the prime example of Pitino's influence. Forced to lose 15 pounds and improve his skills, the 5-foot-11 senior went from a 3.2 scoring average as a sophomore to 19.8 this season. The new recruits are coming but Pitino says his current squad is still susceptible to erraticism.

"On any given night, we could beat a highly ranked team. Also, we could lose to any team because of the (lack of) athletic talent in the program. Something I learned with the Knicks is that you've got to have the horses. I don't try to out-coach anyone during a game, it's the kids' show."

And the wins come and the success was expected.

"There was no question he was going to win at Providence," said Boston U.'s Carpenter. "He will be successful at no matter what he does. If he was selling encyclopedias in a mall, he'd be the best in America.

"I respect him for getting so much out of himself and getting the same commitment out of others. He makes believers of people."

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