MINNEAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Let's get this out of the way first. Every few weeks, since Richard Pitino has entered the head coaching ranks, the topic has come up, "Would he ever follow his dad at a school?" When we sat down in his office at the University of Minnesota and I asked if he ever would follow in a place his dad, Rick Pitino, has coached, he admitted to having heard the question before.
"I'm going to tell you this," he said. "Two things. I hope that's a question we can all address many, many years from now. Because I know he's got a lot of great years left. With that being said, the question of would I follow my dad at a place like Louisville, somewhat implies that I don't have enough here. I hopefully can be here for a long, long time. Because I love it here. . . . I hope we don't have to decide that for a long time, because I know he's got many years left at Louisville, and I really think this is a place that I can hopefully be for many, many years."
The good news for the 31-year-old Pitino is that you don't get those kinds of questions unless you're doing some things right. And in his first season in Minneapolis, he's done quite a few things right. He has three wins over ranked teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. He's taken a team picked to finish tenth in the Big Ten and has the Gophers in seventh place, at 7-9 in conference play, battling for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. On Tuesday of this week, his team knocked off No. 20-ranked Iowa in Williams Arena, which has over the course of this season begun to regain some of its reputation as a difficult road venue.
Pitino has, of course, one of the most recognizable last names in college basketball. And not only that, he has some of its most recognizable mannerisms. His posture, speech, cadence and even some sideline movements call to mind his Hall of Fame father. But there is much about the two that is different, especially when it comes to basketball.
The son says coaching at the Big Ten level has drawn them even closer together. They text multiple times a day and converse daily. And he says it has given him a better appreciation for what his father has accomplished.
"I'm 31 years old, and the thought of doing this for 30 more years at the level that he's done it, I almost just want to go take a nap it's so exhausting," Richard Pitino said. "But that just shows you how great he is, and I marvel at it. Not only has he done it, but he's done it for the Knicks, he's done it for Kentucky, he's done it at Louisville, three places where there's so much pressure, there's so much exposure, there's so much scrutiny. And he's done it at an unbelievably high level. . . . People always want to compare me to him. I never, ever try to compare myself to him because I would probably be very frustrated if I did."
At the same time, Richard Pitino said his father has been a valuable resource, almost daily. Simple things, like dealing with losses, have brought an almost unexpected comfort.
"As a young head coach I second-guess myself a lot," he said. "I think as you get older and more experienced you realize you don't have as much control as you may think you do. We all go through it. I think what's been beneficial for me is actually having my dad, who is, maybe, the worst loser I've ever seen, and he's actually very comforting after losses. We lose, I'll get a text from him, stay positive, spend some time with your family, long season, all things that he probably, looking back, wishes he had handled better. So he's been very helpful with that."
At the same time, the two frequently try to advise each other with on-the-court matters. Richard Pitino says he doesn't succeed in those suggestions very often, but occasionally he hits upon a winner. Last year before Louisville faced Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Richard, then the coach at Florida International, suggested that Louisville have its guards, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, run into high ball screens at less of an angle. Instead of approaching them from the side, to hit them more from the top, to take advantage of their speed. It was an important adjustment in a game the Cardinals wound up winning by 22 points.
"I always tell him I hate his offense -- he always tells me he hates my defense," Richard said. "So he always gets on me that we're not doing certain things right defensively, and I'm vice versa. He does not listen to me anymore. He did last year, a little bit. You know it's funny. We lost a game, a close game, and the fan came out of him for a second. And he'll admit, he admitted he was wrong. He said, 'I should never have done that. I should know better.' And ever since then he's been great. We love to talk basketball. We really have much different philosophies than people would think, when you watch our teams play -- which is fine. The good thing about it is stick to one way, and go with it. Unfortunately he doesn't listen to me as much as I have to listen to him."
After the Cardinals beat Rutgers a couple of weeks ago, Pitino admits that he was focusing late on the blowouts on reports of Richard's game against Northwestern the same night. The Gophers were involved in a close contest that they wound up winning 54-48.
"We talk so much and we text, literally, 20 times a day, and I wanted him to do something defensively before tonight's game, and he said, dad, we don't do that, and I said, you're doing it, and then I'm going to break down the film to see if you got the grading right, and he said, all right, I'm doing it," Pitino said. "So he's doing a remarkable job. I'm so pleased that the people really love his style of play there and really like what he's all about.
"I die with him," Rick Pitino continued. "I don't die with our own possessions, but I die with theirs. Even tonight, after we had a comfortable lead, I had Kenny (Klein) start checking the score. And he was down three and all of a sudden my stomach was churning and I'm sick. I'm never sick with our games, but I 'm sick with his games. So it's something that I'm real proud of, but it really tears you apart when he loses."
While Richard Pitino has daily communication with his dad, he's also in frequent contact with another coach, one people talk less about, but who is just as important in many ways in his development and coaching philosophy. Richard Pitino spent two seasons as an assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida, and said those were some of his most important seasons in coaching.
"(Donovan's influence) is much bigger than people realize," Pitino said. "We lost at home to Northwestern. I didn't call my dad for advice on how to approach my team. And it's not that my dad wouldn't be helpful, but I called Billy. And I just asked him, more because they coach and lead and motivate so differently. My dad's very old school. And he's almost meat-and-potatoes-type motivation. Where Billy will be a little different in his approaches. . . . People think, Pitino, well he must just lean on his dad. Offensively, if you watch my team play, there is so much more of a Billy Donovan influence into what we do than there is what my dad does. Doesn't mean my dad's stuff is wrong. Certainly it works at a very high level. I've taken a bunch of those things.
"The best part, I thought I became a coach when I worked for Billy. When I coached at Louisville the first time, I was just trying to stay out of the way. I was trying to recruit. I was trying to scout. But I wasn't a coach. I went to Florida and thought I became a coach because I started thinking for myself, and I wouldn't have done that without working for Billy Donovan."
One important part of learning how to relate to players, Richard Pitino said, was learning his own style of doing that. He can't do it the way his father does it. No one can, because his father brings a certain presence with him into the locker room.
"The thing for me, with my dad -- and not that Billy isn't -- but my dad is one of the icons in this game right now," Pitino said. "Billy's going to get there. He's not quite there yet. He should be, but he just hasn't done it as long as my dad. So he's got to find different ways to get the respect of his team. And that's good for a 31-year-old coach. Like, I'm not going to walk into my locker room -- they're not going to look at me the way the Louisville players look at my father. That's just natural. That's years and years of experience and respect. What Billy showed me was different, other ways to get their respect, earn their attention, be creative with different things, and there's a lot more Florida influence than people understand."
Donovan said that Pitino has done a good job learning from the many opportunities he's been given, and blending all those lessons into his own style.
"I've gotta talk about this guy," Donovan said. "He's done a remarkable job. I'm really, really proud of him. Gosh, our relationship goes back to when he was four years old. He and I have developed a very close relationship. With him getting his first job at FIU and moving on to Minnesota, there are things age-wise we can relate to. We talk about a lot of things, and I really value his relationship. . . . You almost coach sometimes in different eras. Even the guys I deal with now are different from guys I dealt with at Marshall. I think when you're a young guy like him at Minnesota, you're trying to put it all together and I think he's done a great job of pulling influences from different places to make it work."
The season hasn't been easy for Pitino and Minnesota. After a 15-5 start, they lost six of their next eight games before upsetting Iowa in Minneapolis on Tuesday night. They travel to Michigan on Saturday before finishing the regular season at home against Penn State on March 9.
Pitino earned the respect of his fanbase when he didn't roll into town campaigning for a new basketball facility. Instead, he says Williams Arena, "The Barn," is a great advantage to his program. He'd like to see a new practice facility and other upgrades, but has embraced The Barn.
"This program has a solid foundation right now," Pitino said. "But to build it even more, to get it consistently sitting at the top of the Big Ten, it ultimately starts with our fans. It starts with Williams Arena, in my opinion, because the cool thing about this city is you've got five major sports teams, but when you walk around this city, you're going to see 95 percent Minnesota T-shirts, Minnesota hats, Minnesota sweatshirts. The support is unbelievable. We're the only Division I basketball program in the entire state of over 5 million people. . . . This college basketball experience (in Williams Arena) is as good as anything you're going to get. I've worked at Florida, I've worked at Louisville. It's as good as there. When that place is alive, I wouldn't trade it for a whole lot."
Still, it's a far taller order than his father faced in the second season of his college career at Boston University. His dad wasn't quite ready for him to leave U of L two seasons ago to take the head-coaching job at Florida International, but Richard said he appreciated the opportunity to go to the Miami school, and he responded by leading the team to a school record with 11 Sun Belt-conference wins and an 18-14 record, taking them to the conference tournament championship game before falling to Western Kentucky. The team was eighth in the nation in steals.
Pitino has paid his dues. He was a manager for Tim Welsh while a student at Providence. He also was an assistant coach at St. Anthony's High School in Barrington, R.I., while finishing college. He worked as an administrative assistant to Tom Herrion at the College of Charleston in 2005 and was hired as an assistant by Ron Everhart at Northeastern a year later. He then followed Everhart to Duquesne, where he earned praise from his fellow coaches and players for his role in helping the team deal with the tragedy of five of its players being shot after an argument at a school dance.
He's 31, but his depth of experience seems to be deeper than those years. He doesn't quite share his father's fiery demeanor — though he has his moments, like when he flung his jacket into the crowd and earned a technical foul earlier this season. Still, he's impressing people in his own right.
"I'm not going to walk around and say it has not helped me in this business," Pitino said. "It's definitely helped me and I'm fortunate for that. But I do know, being Rick Pitino's son didn't help me at Michigan State, didn't help me get a win at Purdue, won't help me against Indiana. That I've got to do on my own. And I'm embracing it.
". . . My dad has been very supportive of me, especially this year, because it's tough being a coach at this level, and you need your support, from your mother, from your father, your wife, your family, your friends. You need it. He's been great in that. He's been an unbelievable friend more than anything, and I hope I make him proud, because it's tough to live up to him."