On a July day at Nike’s Peach Jam AAU event in South Carolina, father and son — head coach and head coach — sat side by side, each with the same leg crossed over knee, each with their hands clasped in front of them.
They spoke with the same Long Island accent. Their laughs displayed the same symmetry; their jokes, the same dry humor and sharp wit. If you were to catch them coaching on the sideline in an intense moment, their faces would contort in impressive congruity beneath near-identical hairlines.
Yes, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino is Rick Pitino’s son — obviously and unapologetically so.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Was it tough being Rick Pitino’s son?’ ” Richard said. “And it’s not. I’m extremely proud to be his son. I’m extremely fortunate to be his son. I embrace it every single day. I would be silly to hide from it.”
Hide, he doesn’t. His father, the coach at Louisville and a two-time national champion, is his longtime inspiration and closest confidant.
Now 17 months and two jobs away from last working for Rick, Richard still communicates with his dad on a near-constant basis, talking basketball and talking life.
“We probably text 30 to 40 times a day,” Rick said. “And talk [on the phone] at least once or twice.”
When Richard Pitino accepted the Minnesota job this spring, Rick got the first text message — quickly scooting off a call with officials from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame to call his son.
In his office at the University of Minnesota, Richard’s walls are studded with framed pictures of him and his father. At Louisville, when the Cardinals went to the Final Four in 2012 and when they won the championship this year. At the Kentucky Derby this spring, when one of Rick’s horses raced. And on the golf course — one of the places they both can relax.
But if you really want to know who Richard is, you can’t stop at the physical similarities. The most notable traits the son shares with the father are his fierce dedication and desire.
Rick Pitino always had wanted to name a son after himself.
But when his wife, Joanne, gave birth to their first, she refused.
When the second came, she allowed it as a middle name.
For the third, she gave in entirely.
That one became the coach.
As a toddler, Richard pushed and kicked basketballs around Madison Square Garden as his father, then an assistant coach for the New York Knicks, conducted practices. When Rick took the coaching job at Kentucky in 1989, a middle-school-aged Richard went to Memorial Coliseum every day after classes. In the summers of his high school years, Richard would leave Massachusetts to tag along on road trips with his dad’s Celtics, claiming Chauncey Billups as his favorite player until his father — inexplicably, in his young son’s eyes — traded the guard.
Richard got his start as a student at Providence College, working as a high school assistant at St. Andrew’s School in Rhode Island.
“I found it a little strange to be honest with you,” Rick joked. “While everyone else is going to parties, he’s coaching high school basketball.”
On days off, Richard would drive to Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., to watch coach Ralph Willard’s practices. To Willard, a longtime family friend of the Pitinos, that wasn’t so odd — Willard had become accustomed to young coaches popping in and taking notes. It was how Pitino approached the potential lessons there.
“Most people come to practice, they want to take away a play,” Willard said. “They ask what you’re doing, could you write that down … [Richard] wouldn’t ask the ‘what.’ He would ask the ‘why’ — which I thought was incredibly perceptive at that time.
“He was trying to get an understanding of what people do certain things, what makes it effective. He didn’t just want to mimic.”
After short stints at College of Charleston (as an operations assistant), Northeastern and Duquesne (as an assistant coach), cutting his teeth away from his father, Richard first got the chance to work alongside his dad in 2007. It was something of a dream for a kid that had watched his hero from the sidelines for so many years.
But in 2009, soon after the elder Pitino became the target of an extortion attempt by a woman he later admitted he had engaged in sexual relations with, Richard decided to leave for Florida. The Gators’ Billy Donovan, who had played and coached under Rick Pitino, was seeking another assistant.
“I actually fought it a little bit at first,” Richard said of leaving Louisville, and his father. “I was like ‘Why would I do that — I’m with you.’ ”
Looking back, Richard sees it as the period when he truly found himself as a coach. Under Donovan, Pitino got his first taste of the bright lights away from his dad — his coaching style and mindset continuing to evolve as he worked under another living legend.
“He knows he can’t be his dad — he’s not going to try to be his dad,” Donovan said. “Richard is very comfortable and secure in who he is and what he can do … he’s got to go out and carve his own path.”
Coming into his own
Richard Pitino was fuming.
It was March 2012. Richard had returned to Louisville after two years at Florida to become the associate head coach. The Cardinals were playing the Gators in the Elite Eight, and losing. Richard, sure of Donovan’s coaching strategies, told his dad in the first half that he needed to ditch the zone defense that Florida was exploiting.
But his future Hall of Fame boss — no surprise here — didn’t feel like listening.
“I was telling him ‘Hey, kid — sit in my seat, you want to be head coach?’ ” Rick said. “I was joking in a very tense moment and also getting upset at him because he wouldn’t shut up, he kept insisting that I get out of the zone.”
After the conversation bled into the second half, the elder Pitino finally called off the zone, per his assistant’s incessant beckoning. When Louisville won 72-68 to advance to the Final Four, the Cardinals began to celebrate.
But Richard took a moment to stroll behind his dad, put both hands on his shoulders and deliver his message once more: “Thank God you listened to me!”
As Rick stood aghast at his son’s emphatic performance, he had to shake his head. Richard’s coaching dogma already had begun to grow strong roots. His son had lived his own experiences; done his own research; studied, on his own, the game. He knew he could make the call.
“He’s his own person,” Donovan said. “Richard has a system, a philosophy. He knows what he wants to do.”
A perpetual quest
Willard sauntered around Richard Pitino’s new dominion at Florida International — where at age 29 Pitino took his first head coaching job in April 2012 — unable to shake the resemblance. The way that Richard spoke to his players, the way he communicated with and inspired them, reminded him of someone else. The cohesiveness of Richard’s system from the ground up, with the last guy off the bench brandishing the same dedicated body language as the starters, stirred up memories. It was all just like Rick.
In other ways, Richard is distinct. Rick will be the first to admit that his son is far humbler than he was at Richard’s age, having taken his first head coaching job at age 25, at Boston University in 1978. Richard’s humility, after watching first hand one of the greatest college coaches in history in his father, has fostered a desire to always improve. As a head coach, his frame of mind had not changed from that of a budding coach in college, asking the right questions and wanting to learn.
Willard, who had since retired and was living in Bonita Springs, Fla., had showed up at FIU at Richard’s request, the rising coach seeking a critic.
“A lot of kids today, they don’t have that attitude,” Willard said. “They get a head coaching job and they think that they have all the answers, and the only answers. Richard is not that way. Richard believes he has answers, but he wants more answers.”
Even now, the Gophers coach seeks his father’s thoughts, even as his father now also seeks his.
The deep-seeded kinship explains why Richard seems hesitant to rush to become adversaries, with so many calling for a Louisville-Gophers matchup.
“I differ on it — I’m not sure if I want it, I don’t want it,” Richard said after a recent practice. “I think it would be great for all of us, and I think it would be a fun game to play. But I want him to have an impact on this program, and I want to be able to talk to him about certain things. I don’t ever want to feel like we have to hide things from each other.”
Didn’t listen to Dad
Late in the afternoon on a humid July Saturday, Rick is sitting at a high-top table at Augustino’s Italian Eatery at the Marriott Hotel in Augusta, Ga. — needling his son for ignoring him.
The truth is, from the start, Rick never wanted Richard to coach.
The nature of the job has changed, somewhat — with the implement of NCAA designated “dead periods” and thus a tamed schedule — and the father long ago voiced his full support. But coaching, he had learned, tows a host of relentless, time-crushing tasks along with the on-court joys. It’s tough on a spouse and a family, Rick realized, having spent scores of summers in hotels and going months without seeing his wife.
“I tried to talk them all out of coaching, every one of them,” Rick said of his children, shaking his head as he tried to keep his lips from curling into a smile. He stopped and motioned his head toward Richard.
“He’s the only son that doesn’t listen to me.”
So here they are: on the recruiting trail together, for basketball programs 700 miles away.
Richard is staying at Peach Jam one more night; Rick, off to the next recruiting location, has a flight to catch. He gets up, squeezes Richard’s shoulder and heads for the concierge desk to get his luggage as father and son — head coach and head coach — go their separate ways.