Walter McCarty doesn’t have to try very hard to recall Richard Pitino moments from their time working together. From the time both Pitino and McCarty arrived at Louisville, working as assistants under head coach Rick Pitino, the father’s son was everywhere.
“Richard outworked everyone in the office,” said McCarty, a 10-year NBA veteran who played for Rick Pitino in college at Kentucky. “He was there before everybody. He left after everybody. He was on the phone. He was just always working, and I think that’s one of the biggest [characteristics] he took from his father.”
Those traits help form a fuller picture of the new Gophers men’s basketball coach, one that suggests the 30-year-old — who was just 25 when he first worked with McCarty — could be a special case, like some successful “kid” coaches who have set a trend toward younger hires.
But hiring young still is risky.
For every budding sensation who prospers, there is one that doesn’t, many of them falling so quickly off the map that they’re hastily forgotten. Jeff Capel and Tommy Amaker in college basketball and Josh McDaniels in the NFL, all offer examples of coaches who jumped into high-profile positions and then swiftly stumbled.
Even Rick Pitino — who got his head coaching start even younger than his son — implied that most fathers’ gut reactions would be to encourage patience, rather than big leaps.
“You don’t want your son in that situation, you want him to take his time,” the elder Pitino told media on Thursday at the Final Four. Still, he thinks Richard is different.
“He is more than ready. I drove him harder than I drove Billy,” Pitino said, referring to Billy Donovan, the coach at Florida and one of Pitino’s protégés. “He is more than ready.”
Not every young coach finds success.
McDaniels is the example that perhaps comes to mind most often. He was the youngest coach in the NFL at age 32 when he was hired by the Denver Broncos in 2009, and was soon out of a job. Amaker (Seton Hall and Michigan) and Capel (Oklahoma) had some early success as young coaches but ultimately left top jobs with expectations unmet.
The Gophers are hoping their own young coach finds his footing faster than some, something that those close to Pitino say comes naturally.
The age question has been an obvious theme early as Pitino makes the transition to the Gophers, but it’s not one he shies away from, telling the media on Friday, “I embrace the fact that I’m young.”
“He’s not your average 30-year-old,” McCarty said. “He’s going to be able to get it done. He takes his job very seriously. He takes his craft very seriously. The kids at the university — that program — will be top priority.”
There have, of course, been plenty of examples of young coaches who have panned out — and enough who have been exceedingly successful to make it worth the risk.
VCU’s Shaka Smart, who Gophers fans originally coveted, is still only 35. Brad Stevens, who has taken Butler to the national title game twice, is 36. Donovan — the other coach that Richard Pitino credits with his style and upbringing — took over the Gators in 1996 when he was 30.
The profile of the New Age coach — who is younger, full of energy, and pays attention to advanced statistics — has become attractive for both athletic directors, who hope to find their own version of a burgeoning basketball brain, and fans, who get excited about the upside.
Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said he didn’t specifically seek out that trait, but that he looks at it as an advantage.
Teague’s last basketball hire at VCU was Smart, who carried the school to national prominence with a Final Four berth.
“The youth thing was not something that we set out in the search that was a must,” Teague said. “In talking to Richard, I thought it was definitely an asset, and I thought it was a plus in the end.”
A young gun
Pitino is at a unique juncture of a noteworthy past experience — five years combined as an assistant at Florida and Louisville — and seems to have the youthful energy and fire necessary to take a program to the next level.
It’s something McCarty, who first met a middle school-aged Pitino when McCarty played for Kentucky, said Richard has been preparing for since a very young age.
“His brothers were big sports fans and loved the game,” McCarty said. “But not in the manner that Richard loves it. You could tell with Richard — he knows the game and he wants to be a coach, follow in his dad’s footsteps.”
As he has, he’s impressed many around him, and has caused those close to him to simply shake their heads when the idea of him being raw comes up.
Minnesota has willingly taken the risk associated with Pitino’s age, putting faith in the idea that he will be one of the successes rather than the flops.
“Age is the most underrated thing,” said Steve Masiello, a longtime friend of Pitino and current coach at Manhattan College. “Experience is the key. He’s been doing this since he was 17 years old. You could be 55 and not have the experience Rich has had.
“The players he’s coached the places he’s been. [Working under] Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino. Age is meaningless.”