When a young man veers from sanity and strays into the same profession in which his father has roared into the Hall of Fame, even strangers might feel an impulse. Do not do this, kid. Do something else, anything else. Study the cello. Something.
On the phone, Richard Pitino sounds not like some daredevil but like an observant, measured and sane 34-year-old. When he tells of typical nights at home finishing dinner and then going to the television to study basketball, it doesn’t exactly sound like Rio de Janeiro at the Pitino house in Minnesota. When he says, “There always seems to be a notepad right by my side,” even an accountant might swoon.
When he says he knows not-too-high, not-too-low is a cliche but that he aims to live by that cliche, well, what better tack for riding the tumult from 8-23 in his third Minnesota season to 23-8 in his fourth?
If it takes some pluck to haul a surname into a field in which that surname always will be heavy, then there’s pluck in the Big Ten coach of the year who will pilot the Minnesota sideline Friday in the Big Ten tournament at Verizon Center. The third son among Rick and Joanne Pitino’s six children opted for coaching even though, as Rick Pitino said Monday by telephone, “I tried to discourage all my kids” from it. Richard Pitino did so even though, asked how much his parents worried about the choice, he said, “Oh, very much so. They didn’t want me to be a coach.”
Since the fall of 1978, when he took over at Boston University at age 26 and promptly went 17-9, Rick Pitino has wreaked so much strategic and motivational wonder from the college sidelines at Providence, Kentucky and his ongoing 16 seasons at Louisville that his surpassing cleverness has come to count as commonplace. He has reached Final Fours in all three places and won national titles at the latter two. One of his non-Final Four squads, the 1991-92 Kentucky team, merely engaged Duke in a regional final still widely considered the best game yet played and should have been allowed into that Final Four as a fifth entry, just for accuracy.
Still, the elder Pitino is one of two lavishly decorated coaching influences on Richard Pitino, the other being Rick Pitino’s former assistant Billy Donovan, the Oklahoma City Thunder coach whose four Final Fours at Florida brimmed with consecutive national titles (2006, 2007). Rick Pitino said he remembers a prekindergarten Richard on Donovan’s lap when Donovan played for Pitino at Providence.
“He’s not sitting on my lap anymore, I’m going to tell you that,” Donovan said Tuesday in Oklahoma, via Brett Dawson of the Oklahoman.
Richard “does remind me so much of Billy,” Rick Pitino said. “His mannerisms are similar.”
In high school, Richard started going wayward. While his father coached the Boston Celtics, Richard loved attending practices. (Uh-oh.) He befriended “the equipment manager, strength coach, video guys,” he said. (Oh, no.) He could divine meaning out of a shoot-around. (Good grief.) To this day, while the four scattered adult male Pitino sons all know and love basketball, if they turn up for a game in Louisville, Richard will go to the shoot-around, while Michael, Christopher and Ryan are “probably going to the bar to watch the game,” Richard said.
Still, he says this: “I’m not really sure why it all worked out.” And: “I never anticipated being a head coach in the Big Ten at 30 years old.” And: “It just kind of snowballed, to be honest, because I had always thought about being a high school coach.” And, of course, this: “That constant of people talking to you about living up to your father’s expectations, I wasn’t really sure if that was something I wanted to deal with.”
His steps up into the irresistible horror came at the College of Charleston, Northeastern (with a real coach’s coach, Ron Everhart), Duquesne (also with Everhart) and then at Louisville, Donovan’s Florida and Louisville. By the 2011-12 season, as Louisville reached the Final Four, Rick Pitino had Richard study film to scout all the games. “He did a fabulous job for us,” the 64-year-old Pitino said.
Said Donovan, “I think the one thing that I really admired about Coach [Rick] Pitino was that he made Richard do it the hard way. In a lot of ways, because of Coach Pitino’s status in the game and different places he’s coached at, it could have been very, very easy for him just to get Richard a really good job. And I think he knew that wasn’t the best way for him to grow and develop.”
All along, he carried with him something invaluable that lodged into his innards as a teen. Seeing his father go from Kentucky (where he got lauded) to Boston (where he got ripped) to Louisville (where he got ripped by the peeved Kentucky fans who once lauded), he gained a built-in sense of how to swim in the noise without drowning.
That came in handy last season when Minnesota went two months without winning. Son and father often talked twice a day. Other coaches helped out in that curious way coaches do, as in the pregame at Iowa City when Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery told of weathering his 7-22 fourth season at North Carolina Greensboro. When finally Minnesota beat No. 6 Maryland on Feb. 18, 2016, senior forward Joey King wept in a postgame TV interview, and Richard Pitino showed his aplomb by unleashing a smashing one-liner: “I can start going inside to Starbucks instead of going through the drive-through.”
Guard Nate Mason stuck around for his junior season and made first team all-Big Ten; transfer Reggie Lynch became the Big Ten defensive player of the year; sophomore Jordan Murphy made third-team all-Big Ten; and a Minnesota Mr. Basketball, Amir Coffey, made the all-freshman team. The Gophers improved by a stunning 15 games, leaving Richard and Rick Pitino primed to become the first father and son to coach in the same NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, in Louisville, “My wife and I went to bed for two months sad because of what he was going through” last year, Rick Pitino said, “to now what is like a euphoria.”