LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rick Pitino became Louisville's basketball coach Wednesday, returning to the state where he won a national championship in 1996.
Several hundred Louisville fans, city officials and past and current players gathered for a pep rally where the former Kentucky coach was introduced.
''I know all of you were not fond of me when I was Kentucky's coach and I'll make no bones about it -- I'll always love UK and my players,'' Pitino said. ''Now it's my time to lead the Cardinals back to prominence.''
Pitino, who won the national title at Kentucky, resigned as coach and president of the Boston Celtics in January after 3 1/2 disappointing seasons.
His hiring at Louisville follows a bold, aggressive courtship by athletic director Tom Jurich, who acted as a one-man search committee. Jurich said two weeks ago that Pitino was his only candidate for the job.
''It's been the year from hell, but I see heaven on the horizon,'' Jurich said.
Pitino has not signed a contract, but Jurich said he's agreed to a six-year deal, worth about $1 million per year.
Pitino, who was courted by Michigan and other schools, said wife Joanne helped convince him to take the Louisville job.He said he almost decided to take the Michigan job Wednesday morning.
''She said, 'I think you love the state of Kentucky, you love the people you met at U of L I think you should go back to the place you love,''' Pitino said.
Jurich flew to Pitino's Miami home on March 9 and persuaded him to visit the Louisville campus last week.
Pitino left impressed, but said he wanted to consult his family before making a decision. He worked the NCAA Midwest Regional in Dayton, Ohio, as an analyst for CBS before flying to Boston to meet his family Sunday night.
Pitino replaces Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, who retired after months of strained relations with Jurich. The 64-year-old Crum, who led Louisville to NCAA championships in 1980 and '86, had two seasons left on his contract, but accepted a $7 million buyout.
Speculation began immediately that Pitino was Jurich's top choice, and even former Louisville players voiced support.
''This was the guy we had to have,'' Jurich said. ''There was no other answer to fixing this program.''
Jurich called a news conference March 6 to confirm he was pursuing Pitino. When Pitino expressed interest, some Kentucky fans said they were angry that Pitino would even consider coaching the Wildcats' rival.
''When I took over (Kentucky), everyone was embarrassed,'' Pitino said. ''It had to be built back up with integrity. When I left, it was not only built up, but it was a model program.
''One game a year, we'll get it on. Outside of that, I'll always root for them.''
Pitino said the opinions of Kentucky fans factored into his decision but that his family mattered most. His 18-year-old son, Richard, accompanied him during his recent visit to the Louisville campus.
Pitino, 48, took the Celtics' job in 1997 after eight seasons at Kentucky that solidified his reputation as a master rebuilder. He previously turned around mediocre programs at Boston University and Providence, guiding both to the NCAA tournament. He also coached the New York Knicks from 1987-89.
The season before Pitino arrived at Kentucky, the team went 13-19 -- its first losing record in 62 years -- and was hit with NCAA probation. He inherits a Louisville program in similar disarray.
The Cardinals finished this season 12-19, capping the worst four-year run in Crum's 30 years. Louisville is 62-62 since reaching the NCAA regional finals in 1997 and was twice put on probation in the 1990s.
The school hopes Pitino can guide the Cardinals back to the national prominence they enjoyed in the 1980s.
''It doesn't happen with a coach arriving, it happens by recruiting good student-athletes, it happens by improving the current players,'' Pitino said. ''It's going to take some outstanding recruiting to turn things around. But it won't happen unless we turn around the players that are currently here. And that's what I fully intend to do.
''Tom said the current players know what's in store for them. No they don't. They have no concept of what's in store.''
It took Pitino three seasons to turn things around in Lexington. Kentucky went 14-14 in his first season and 22-6 in his second.
In his third, the Wildcats went 29-7, losing to Duke in the memorable 1992 East Regional final.
Kentucky reached the Final Four the following season and went 124-19 over the next four, winning the school's sixth national title in 1996. The Wildcats reached the title game in 1997, losing to Arizona, before Pitino accepted a 10-year, $50 million contract to coach the Celtics.
Pitino turned the Wildcats over to Tubby Smith, a former assistant. Smith congratulated Louisville from Philadelphia, where Kentucky is preparing to play Southern California on Thursday in the East Regional semifinals.
''They're getting one of the great coaches in basketball,'' Smith said. ''I'll welcome him back.''
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