Tuesday at a news conference at Lexington, Ky., Pitino, saying he wanted to bring back the "glorious tradition" of the Celtics, announced he had accepted their head coaching job. He signed a reported $70-million, 10-year contract.
"There's a challenge there I wanted to take," Pitino said. "It's the lure of the Boston Celtics. It's magical."
Magical enough for Pitino to leave his job at the University of Kentucky only weeks after he had said there was no amount of money that could make him leave. He replaces M.L. Carr, who resigned last week after the worst season in Celtic history.
"I don't have an easy path. I have a very difficult one," said Pitino, who inherits a team that finished 15-67 this season. "I could stay and coach at Kentucky and be very happy, but there's a challenge out there that I want to take. It's a monster challenge."
It is a challenge Pitino hopes he will confront with the aid of Celtic legend Larry Bird. Currently a special assistant to Boston, Bird has a four-year offer from the Indiana Pacers worth $4.5 million a year to coach in his home state.
When asked if he wants Bird to remain with the Celtics, Pitino said: "Very much so, but Larry's got to want to be part of it. He's got to find out whether he wants to coach or be in management. We need to talk, and I certainly will have discussions with him in the hours to come."
Pitino said he is not a part owner of the team, but various reports have indicated that he will have control of basketball operations. He rejected an offer from the New Jersey Nets a year ago that reportedly would have paid him $28 million over five years and made him a part-owner of the team. His move comes shortly after Larry Brown signed a five-year, $25-million contract to coach the Philadelphia 76ers.
The move to Boston is a homecoming for Pitino, a New York native who played at the University of Massachusetts and coached at Boston University and Providence College before coaching the New York Knicks for two seasons, compiling a 90-74 record.
He leaves Kentucky with a 442-198 record that includes a national championship in 1996. In eight seasons, he restored a storied program that had been depleted by NCAA probation for recruiting violations.
"I came to Kentucky for a specific reason: to try to build a program in shambles to the championship level, and we've accomplished that," Pitino said.
"Now, I have a similar situation at the professional level that I had eight years ago at this level: something full of glory, full of tradition, full of wonderful pride that I'd like to see get back to the championship level."
Two of Pitino's assistant coaches at Kentucky, Jim O'Brien and Winston Bennett, will join him in Boston, Pitino said.
Pitino's contract at Kentucky ran through the 1999-2000 season. The salary was for $150,000, but the total annual package was valued at more than $2 million and included a $1-million bonus for staying until it expired.
As recently as April 18, Pitino said he would stay at Kentucky for the coming season. "I'll be back at my ol' Kentucky home trying to win another championship," he told the Bloomberg Forum. "There's no monetary amount that can get me to leave."
His new contract stipulates that he will remain with the Celtics after he is through with coaching, and Pitino said this is probably his final coaching job.
"If we're successful, I will grow old with the Boston Celtics," he said. "If we lose, I'll just grow old."
The Celtics issued a statement Tuesday, saying: "The entire Boston Celtics family would like to welcome Coach Rick Pitino to Boston. We look forward to an exciting new era of Celtics basketball."
The club did not address the future of Carr, who remains director of basketball operations.
But assistant coach K.C. Jones said he was fired. And General Manager Jan Volk, with the club for 26 years, stepped down.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The highest-paid coaches in the NBA:
* Rick Pitino: Boston Celtics, 10 years, $70 million contract.
* Pat Riley: Miami Heat five-year, $30-million contract, plus 10% ownership of the team.
* Larry Brown: Philadelphia 76ers, five-year, $25-million contract.
* John Calipari: New Jersey Nets, five-year, $15-million contract.
The highest-paid coaches and players in the four major sports:
* COACH: Rick Pitino, Celtics
(10 years, $70 million)
* PLAYER: Michael Jordan, Bulls
(1 year, $30 million)
(6 years, $20 million)
* PLAYER: Drew Bledsoe, Patriots
($13.2 million in 1996)
* MANAGER: Jim Leyland, Marlins
(5 years, $7.5 million)
* PLAYER: Barry Bonds, Giants
($11.45 million in 1997)