Pitino Resigns as Celtics Coach

Rick Pitino resigned as coach of the Boston Celtics today, unable to restore the NBA’s most successful franchise to its former glory. His assistant, Jim O’Brien, was named interim head coach.

The Celtics confirmed the decision today.

“I would like to thank Rick for his dedication and effort over the last three plus seasons. I have greatly enjoyed our relationship and consider his work ethic to be without equal,” team owner Paul Gaston said in a statement.

“It has been a great privilege to coach the greatest basketball tradition in sports,” Pitino said in a statement released today by the team. “I wish we could have accomplished more between the lines, but I am proud with the efforts of my staff and players.”

Pitino said he would spend the next few weeks with his family considering his future in basketball.

O’Brien started his new job by leading practice on Sunday, when Pitino said he was taking the day off to mull his options. Pitino told owner Gaston that he was through, and he reportedly gave up the remaining 6½ years and $27 million on his contract to be coach and president.

The Celtics were to play the Portland Trail Blazers at the FleetCenter tonight.

‘It’s Heartbreaking to Me’

Pitino had hinted since the end of last season that he would leave if the team did not improve this season, his fourth as coach and president. But the tone of his comments became more immediate as the Celtics stumbled to a 12-22 record, leaving Pitino 102-146 overall.

Pitino said in November he would meet with Gaston in mid-January to discuss the team. If there wasn’t any progress, Pitino promised to finish the season and then leave.

On Saturday night, though, it became clear Pitino had changed his mind. He hugged Paul Pierce as he came out of the game, and spoke afterward as if his mind were made up. Newspaper reports said he would step down as early as Sunday.

“Sometimes change is good just for the sake of change when things aren’t going well,” he told the Boston Herald after the 112-86 loss to Miami. “It’s heartbreaking to me, what’s happened here. I love the Boston Celtics and I’ll always be a fan.

“This organization has treated me like royalty since I came here. But you know, I’ve been going at this pretty hard now for 3½ years and I haven’t seen many results. It hurts, but life goes on and it will for the players and for the people in this organization.”

One Troubled Team Pitino Could Not Revive

Pitino took the day off from practice on Sunday and asked his wife to come down to Miami so they could discuss his next move. A woman who answered the phone at Gaston’s home said he would not be available for comment. O’Brien did not speak to the media after Sunday’s practice.

Pitino came to Boston with a reputation for turning around troubled teams, and the Celtics were indeed troubled: Their 16 NBA titles is a record, but their 14-year drought without one is their longest.

The team went 15-67 the year before he arrived, earning the most chances in the draft lottery for Wake Forest star Tim Duncan. Pitino promised fans he would have Boston back in the playoffs in three years.

But the Celtics didn’t get Duncan. San Antonio did, and he led the Spurs to the NBA title in 1999. Instead of Duncan and Keith Van Horn, who was also coveted by Pitino, the Celtics got Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer; both have since been traded.

Pitino has since said he would never have taken the job if he’d known how the lottery would turn out. Last March, he said he would leave if the team didn’t make the playoffs, giving up what’s left on his reported 10-year, $50 million contract if the Celtics don’t make the postseason this year.

“All I would be doing if I stayed at that point is trying to take Paul Gaston’s money,” he said. “If I don’t see a major difference in our ball club and we’re still struggling, I think enough’s enough. What I will do is just go on and try my next job and wish everybody well.”

Not at the Top of His Game

The Celtics have lost 11 of their last 14 games, allowing 100 or more points in nine of those games. This would be an unprecedented eighth consecutive losing season for a franchise that had never before gone more than four years in a row without a winning record.

“There’s a lot of pressure when you put on a Boston Celtics uniform, or when you get the title of head coach of the Celtics. There’s a lot of pressure in that job,” Pierce said Sunday. “We really haven’t fulfilled the expectations put on us.

“I just want him to make the decision that’s going to make him happy. … I don’t know how happy he was lately.”

Pitino played at UMass and coached at Boston University and Providence, two programs he took from mediocrity to the NCAA tournament. He spent two seasons with the New York Knicks, taking them to the playoffs in 1989 for the first time in four years.

Then he took over a Kentucky team that had been on probation, leading it to the Final Four three times in eight seasons, winning the NCAA title in 1996. Before joining the Celtics, he had just two losing seasons in 17 years.

Antoine Walker, who also played for Pitino at Kentucky, said he still hoped the team could turn things around with its current personnel.

“Right now, I would prefer not going through an adjustment,” he said. “But you have to respect and understand what he’s going through. If he’s not going to be at the top of his profession, then obviously he needs to move on.”