Pitino follows his father’s footsteps

On his way to Minnesota, the new coach learned from the best.

The Gopher's new basketball head coach Richard Patino answers questions during a press conference Friday, April 5, 2013, at William's Arena.

Jaak Jensen

The Gopher’s new basketball head coach Richard Patino answers questions during a press conference Friday, April 5, 2013, at William’s Arena.

Jace Frederick

Richard Pitino’s coaching career seems like a scripted fairy tale.

He grew up watching his father Rick Pitino coach a national powerhouse.

He eventually joined the family business and coached under his father, a family friend, then his father again before landing his own head coaching gig.

Pitino led a remarkable one-year turnaround at a mid-major program and was named the new head coach at the University of Minnesota in April.

He is the face of a Big Ten basketball program at age 31, but it wasn’t easy.

Born into the game

As kids, Pitino and his brothers used to go to the University of Kentucky’s basketball practices after school in Lexington, Ky. They would play quietly on the side basket to avoid getting in trouble with Dad — sometimes unsuccessfully.

“They’d get into fights,” Rick Pitino said with a chuckle. “I’d have to throw them on the treadmill — all three of them.”

Rick Pitino said Richard was like most of his children. They all followed Rick’s career religiously and were always around basketball.  Richard was the only one of the children to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

“I was just the only one stupid enough to join the profession,” he said.

Richard Pitino fell stupidly in love with the game of basketball from the moment of his first memory of the sport — a moment that probably should have pushed him away from it.

In 1992, a 9-year-old Pitino watched his dad’s Wildcats battle the Duke Blue Devils with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

In the game, Kentucky held a one-point lead with 2.1 seconds left when Duke forward Christian Laettner caught a full-court pass and drilled one of the most legendary shots in college basketball history.

“Seeing that go in and just seeing the heartbreak … it’s kind of surprising that I got into coaching after that,” Pitino said.

Getting into coaching

Pitino worked as an assistant coach at the high school level while in college but eventually started working with Providence College while still in school there.

He did a lot of film and grunt work and tried to stay out of the other coaches’ way.

“[I] balanced going to school as well as coming in early, staying late and just seeing if that’s truly what I wanted to do,” Pitino said.

Apparently, it was.

Pitino joined Northeastern as an assistant on then-head coach Ron Everhart’s staff in 2005.

Everhart, now an assistant at West Virginia, said he wanted someone who could groom star point guard J.J. Barea and be a great recruiter at the same time.

“It only took about 10 minutes to figure out that [Pitino] was that guy,” he said.

Pitino oversaw player development that season. Everhart linked Barea’s development to Pitino — now, Barea plays guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The next season, Everhart took the head coaching job at Duquesne — a three-win team the year before. He brought Pitino with him to restructure a program that was in “complete disarray.”

The situation at Duquesne became more complicated when five players were shot in an on-campus incident in September 2006 — just three months after Everhart and Pitino’s arrival.

The incident drew nationwide attention, and Everhart received interview requests from major media outlets. He said he leaned on his youthful assistant for advice in the aftermath.

“Richard helped me through that, and I think that kind of really attests to … his maturity level,” Everhart said.

Pitino left Everhart’s staff to join his father at Louisville after just one season at Duquesne, but Everhart gives Pitino a lot of credit for Duquesne’s turnaround.

“It was because a lot of the groundwork and foundations that Richard laid when he was there,” Everhart said.

Learning from Dad and Donovan

Rick Pitino said he wanted Richard Pitino on his staff because he needed someone who would “get after it recruiting-wise.”

The Cardinals advanced to two Elite Eights during Richard Pitino’s first stint in Louisville.

He left to be an assistant at Florida shortly after his dad became entangled in a sex scandal.

“[It was a] really difficult situation,” Pitino said. “You look at a guy who was on top of the world and made a mistake, and now everybody’s real critical of him.

“We just said, ‘Listen, man, we’re supporting you left and right, and we’re with you until the end.’ And he … came out on top and just got through it.”

At Florida, Pitino learned under two-time national champion head coach Billy Donovan.

“It was a tough decision [to go to Florida], but I thought … in the end this is going to make me better,” Pitino said. “There’s no doubt in my mind it did.”

Pitino returned to Louisville a changed man, Rick Pitino said.

“The way he acted with the players was totally different,” Rick Pitino said. “He was much more in a leadership role the second time around.”

Richard Pitino said he still seeks advice from both his dad and Donovan.

“It would be silly for me to ignore those guys,” he said.

Richard Pitino said he texts his dad every day.

“He bounces everything off of me, from the opening starting lineup video to recruiting things,” Rick Pitino said. “He bounces everything off of me every day.” 

FIU — ‘a disaster’

Florida International hired Richard Pitino in 2012. He said he thought it was an attractive place to recruit.

But Rick Pitino said his son didn’t know about the Golden Panthers’ academic issues.

FIU received a postseason ban for the 2013-14 season for poor academic progress rate scores accrued before Richard Pitino took the job.

And the situation on the court wasn’t much better. FIU had only three players on scholarship when Pitino took the job.

“That program was a disaster,” Rick Pitino said.

But Richard Pitino didn’t complain. He brought in eight new players and went to work.

“He pretty much gave us his all last year,” said Gophers senior guard Malik Smith, who was on Pitino’s FIU squad and followed him to Minnesota.

In Pitino’s first season, FIU recorded 18 wins — the most the program had achieved in 13 years. The Golden Panthers came up just three points shy of a Sun Belt tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Rick Pitino watched his son turn around a team that featured two walk-on starters.

“He really coached his ass off last year,” he said.

First to come, last to leave

Pitino entered the Williams Arena media room with his voice at less than full strength and an exhausted look on his face after Minnesota’s exhibition bout with Cardinal Stritch on Nov. 1. He had just put in a relentless effort on the sideline, as he’s done throughout his career.

That effort isn’t only present on game days. He said come winter, he barely even notices the weather.

“I’m like a zombie walking around during the season,” he said.

And those around him can’t help but try to match his efforts.

“[When] he’s around the basketball program, that program can’t help but to take on some of his personality — the intensity, the passion,” Everhart said. “Everybody’s all in because he is.”

Pitino said there was no hesitation when he accepted the Gophers coaching job.

“I had to jump at it right away,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s ever anything that gets you ready for this.”

Now he’s tasked with resurrecting a program that’s underachieved in recent history.

Pitino said he’s hoping to build the Gophers brand, which takes time.

His career path suggests he does things a little quicker than most.