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Pitino wins clash of styles

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ATLANTA — They are both 60 years old, grandfathers, and head up two of the most prestigious college basketball programs in the country.

Beyond that, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and John Beilein of Michigan are about as different as two high profile coaches can be.

They have different personalities to be sure. They also took divergent routes to the big time, and have found different ways in which to motivate and handle their teams.

Yet, the two men on opposing benches in Monday night’s national championship game at the Georgia Dome also have something very much in common — their leadership qualities are second to none.

Both have taken fairly young teams to the pinnacle of college success. Finding the correct way to massage the highly-recruited players’ egos, getting them to accept the team concept and forging a relationship that binds the team together through good times and bad.

This night, Pitino got the best of Beilein in a down-to-the-wire title game that featured some of the best basketball of the tournament. It was his second national crown, the other coming with Kentucky in 1996, and put him the rarified air of coaches who have won more than one crown.

Pitino is the slick Long Islander who wears thousand dollar suits, owns a slew of successful race horses and is a conglomerate unto himself. He’s a media darling wherever he goes, spinning tales with a still-thick New York accent, entertainer as much as coach.

He was made to be a coach, having stints with the NBA’s New York Knicks and Boston Celtics as well as those at Boston University, Kentucky and now 12 years at Louisville.

If Beilein’s entire wardrobe costs as much as one Pitino suit it would be a surprise. He’s the down-to-earth, small time kid from tiny Burt, N.Y., who majored in history at Wheeling Jesuit College in hopes of becoming a high school teacher.

He admits to “a pretty boring life’’ and his news conferences are straight-forward, matter-of-fact question and answer gatherings with not much pizzazz.

Beilein’s career started in high school, then he hit the junior college circuit at Erie Community College. He progressed to Division III Nazareth College, then to Division II LeMoyne before finally making Division I with Canisius College before moving up the ladder to Richmond, West Virginia and now Michigan.

Unlike Pitino, who started his career as the very first assistant coach Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim ever hired in 1976 and never coached below Division I, Beilein drove team vans, did the team laundry and was basically a one-man administrative staff at many of his early stops.

He learned the game from the ground up, and has used his old-school philosophy to build programs that were stuck in neutral when he arrived on campus.

Whereas Beilein is the ultimate rags-to-riches story, Pitino has been basketball royalty for nearly 30 years.

He turned a moribund Providence College program into a Final Four team in 1987, when the Friars lost to SU in the semifinals.

And even though his two-year stint with the Knicks was not very successful, he was regarded as a great motivator and a cinch to snag a major college job.

When Kentucky, a true blue blood, tabbed Pitino to pick up the pieces after a scandal rocked the program, he had the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament within three years, to a Final Four in his fourth season and won a national crown by beating SU in 1996.

Beilein finally got his shot at the big-time when West Virginia hired him in 2002, a year after Pitino arrived at Louisville following a four-year stint with the Celtics that ended in disappointment.

His down-to-earth, conservative style took a few years to set in with the Mountaineers. But he won 20 games each of his final three seasons, making an NCAA Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in successive seasons.

Beilein’s style is more professor than coach. He breaks down his own game film, begins with the basics and teachers his players from the ground up, stressing fundamentals.

That’s exactly what Michigan was looking for after nearly 15 years of mediocrity since making the NCAA finals in 1992 and 1993 with the Fab Five.

Unlike a lot of high profile hires, Beilein didn’t make any bold promises or predictions when he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2007. After a 10-22 record in his first campaign, there were even some Michigan boosters who wanted a bigger name to guide their beloved Wolverines.

But Beilein stayed the course, won 21 games his second season and has now made the NCAA Tournament four times in his six years at the helm.

Pitino, who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame just Monday morning, has been acknowledged as one of the great coaches in the country, spoken of in the same breath as the Mike Krzyzewski’s, Dean Smith’s and other legendary mentors.

Beilein will probably never fit into that category no matter what he does in the future. But by finally reaching the grandest stage of all, he has cemented his legacy as not only a wonderful coach, but one of the nicest men in college basketball.

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