Thursday, July 26, 2001 | 11:01 a.m.
Rick Pitino turned down the UNLV basketball coaching job in March for his family's sake, not because of poor treatment on his wife's visit to Las Vegas or any other perceived quarrel with the school or city.
Whether Rebels fans choose to believe that, he says, is up to them.
"Some people don't want to hear the truth," Pitino said Wednesday. "But that's it. It was a family decision, to keep our (five) children living reasonably close to each other."
Nearly five months after rejecting a UNLV package worth a reported $1.7 million a year, then taking over as Louisville's head coach, Pitino is in Las Vegas this week scouting prospects at the Big Time Tournament. He was at Green Valley High on Wednesday afternoon.
Since Charlie Spoonhour was hired as Rebels coach on March 29, Pitino's decision has remained a sore topic among UNLV fans. Internet chat sites still fill up with angry postings between UNLV and Louisville fans, with the Rebels insulting Pitino's integrity and the Cardinals defending him.
Some UNLV fans suspect Pitino used the school's offer to bolster his market value and never intended to coach the Rebels. Others blame university president Dr. Carol Harter and athletic director Charlie Cavagnaro for failing to land Pitino.
The local rancor intensified in May after Pitino pulled Louisville out of a nonconference game at UNLV next season, scheduled by previous Cards coach Denny Crum.
But Pitino doesn't understand why Rebels fans are steamed.
"I wouldn't understand that," he said. "I can see Kentucky fans being upset that I went to Louisville. But I can't see that here.
"Obviously I had tremendous interest in UNLV, but it was never a done deal. I was just a guy out of work, looking into a job, like I would Michigan, Louisville or any other job that opened up. I was very much interested in UNLV. I felt it had great potential.
"But (my decision) wasn't because I didn't like Vegas, or I wouldn't have been interested in the first place. It's a terrific town, a terrific job. If it were just my wife and myself, who knows? But we didn't want to see our (older) children just once or twice a year."
The Pitinos have three sons (ages 23, 21 and 18) working or attending college in New York, Providence and Washington D.C., and two children (ages 11 and 9) at home.
"Obviously I'm not on an island by myself," Pitino said. "We're a very close family, and my wife didn't want to move west of the Mississippi, because she didn't want to be away from (the older children). I couldn't disagree.
"It wasn't that we didn't want to raise children in Las Vegas. It's that we didn't want our (younger children) to not see their brothers anymore."
UNLV's courtship of Pitino stretched over nearly two months during the basketball season, starting almost immediately after he resigned as the Boston Celtics' coach and president on Jan. 8.
Pitino met with Cavagnaro on Jan. 17 in Miami, then with Harter and Cavagnaro on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles, leading some to report that Pitino's move to UNLV was a done deal.
But Pitino continued to express reservations about the Rebels' NCAA probation (through December 2004) and scholarship limits for the next two seasons.
Then Pitino's wife Joanne made a much-publicized trip to Las Vegas on Feb. 27-28 to tour UNLV and check out homes. But the trip ended badly, with Joanne Pitino sitting alone at McCarran International Airport for several hours after being dropped off by UNLV officials.
That incident has been rumored around UNLV for months, and Rick Pitino confirmed it, calling it "a mishap at the airport."
"If you're at the airport for 10 or 12 hours -- or whatever it was -- waiting by yourself, it's not the best feeling in the world," he said. "But it happens. My wife is a woman who's been through a lot in her life, and that was just an inconvenience."
Pitino said the incident had no bearing on his decision, and that Harter and his wife got along well. But five days afterward, on March 4, he called Cavagnaro to turn down the job.
On March 23, Pitino was named coach at Louisville, replacing the venerable Crum, and six days later UNLV hired Spoonhour out of a two-year retirement.
"I think they got an absolute gem in Charlie Spoonhour. He's one of the best in our game," Pitino said. "They got a great coach.
"I have tremendous respect for his abilities. He knows the fundamentals of the game, he's very glib and everybody in the game has the utmost respect for him. He's well-respected by coaches in every rank -- high school, Juco -- and he can attract players because of that reputation."
Though Pitino won't be coaching against Spoonhour this season, he thinks the home-and-home series will begin in 2003.
"I believe it's going to happen," Pitino said.