Richard Pitino wakes up a couple of hours before his wife and three kids each morning. The Gophers coach likes to study game videos, sift through stats and prepare for the next opponent in peace.
He’s pretty locked in — full coach mode — until he hears little feet pitter-pattering across the floor outside of the bedroom.
Ava and Jack get dressed, have breakfast and ride to school with Daddy in his maroon Chevy Tahoe.
“I try to stay as consistent as possible, because we have a 7-month-old,” Pitino said of Zoe, the littlest. “I take the kids to school each day. I enjoy that part of it.”
With the Gophers (24-9) winning 16 more games than they did a year ago on their road to Thursday’s first-round NCAA tournament game against Middle Tennessee, Pitino is no longer asked on the ride to school if Daddy lost again.
There is more joy this March in the Pitino household. Same for their local Starbucks.
When Pitino, 34, walks in to get his coffee after dropping off the kids, fans greet him and congratulate him on the team’s success. Last March, these moments did not exist. Pitino avoided awkward interaction, with his Gophers tumbling through a 2-16 Big Ten record, and ordered his go-to blonde roast from the drive-thru.
“It’s such a drastic shift, from everybody wants you fired to now where we’re sitting,” Pitino said. “It is so extreme on the other end of it. People keep asking me that. That’s the No. 1 question: How is everybody to you now? It’s not like they were throwing batteries at me. People don’t know what to say to you when you lose. Now, it’s been a lot of fun.”
As Louisville’s side of the bracket popped up on the TV screen at the Gophers’ selection show pep rally Sunday night, Pitino thought out loud. “They better not do it,” Pitino said after seeing the Cardinals get a No. 2 seed in Indianapolis. “They better not do it.”
There was a chance the first father-and-son head coaches ever to make the same NCAA tournament were going to be placed together in the first two rounds.
Pitino really, really didn’t want that. “I’m happy we’re not playing each other,” he said later.
After learning his team was going to Milwaukee as a No. 5 seed to play the 12th-seed Blue Raiders, the Gophers fourth-year coach lifted 2-year-old Jack in the air and waved him around like he was Simba in “The Lion King.”
Jack didn’t cry. Not like Dad likely did during one of his first NCAA tournament experiences. As a 9-year-old watching his father’s Kentucky team, Pitino did not enjoy “The Shot.”
“I’m sure I did,” Pitino said when asked if he got teary-eyed in 1992 when Duke’s Christian Laettner hit his famous turnaround buzzer-beater to beat the Wildcats.
No matter how far the Gophers and Louisville go this year, this will be another memorable March for the Pitinos.
“It’s a fun time for both of us,” Pitino said. “He likes this team a lot, and I like his team a lot. So it’s cool.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who opens against Jacksonville State on Friday, attended more of his son’s games this year than any other season.
“I’m really proud of Richard,” he said Monday. “The best part about Richard is his humble personality. He really, really handled adversity, and now he’s really handled success well. And he’s got a good team.”
The elder Pitino skipped Gophers games last year because he would get too frustrated watching them struggle. He said his wife, Jill, still can’t come to games.
“She gets stressed out,” he said. “She likes to be away.”
The climate surrounding the team because of Pitino’s job status was beyond tense a year ago. After an 8-23 season, the youngest coach in a major conference scrambled to make sure his players weren’t panicking over rumors of his possible firing.
Pitino, who was 16-38 in his first three seasons in the Big Ten, was hoping he’d be back to coach a more talented Gophers squad in 2016-17. But he wasn’t so sure he was wanted back.
“My biggest thing was I just wanted to get to coach the team,” Pitino said. “There were so many things swirling around. Was I going to be fired? Was it going to get to that point? My biggest thing was I believed if I could get to the season, then we’d turn it around.”
Dad, the Gophers fan
The day before the Gophers played Penn State at Williams Arena last month, Rick sent a text message to his son requesting six tickets. Richard wrote back, “You’re coming back?”
His father had just attended the 83-78 overtime win against Michigan less than a week before. He attended four Gophers games this season, including road games at Purdue and Ohio State.
The season before, the Hall of Fame coach could barely watch his son’s team. Minnesota didn’t have the talent, he thought, to win in the Big Ten.
“You got to get Big Ten players in there,” Rick said about the conversation with his son a year ago. “You don’t have anybody on honorable mention, first, second or third team. [Richard] said, ‘I’m working on it, Dad. Thanks for your great advice.’ ”
But now, Dad is a superfan. Richard said Rick recently told him, “I love the way you guys play.”
Richard counts that as one of the best coaching compliments he has ever received.
In previous years, Pitino’s father gave motivational speeches to the Gophers. But he was just an observer this season, a proud father watching his son. They shared an embrace when Richard walked into the locker room after a 10-point win Feb. 25 against Penn State.
“I just try to be a father,” Rick said. “I don’t try to be a strategist with him at all. I just try to be his dad. If I try to be a strategist with him, then I didn’t train him well enough.”
That was Minnesota’s seventh win in a row. The turnaround from a five-game losing streak earlier occurred just like Rick the fortune-teller had foreseen.
“He predicted game by game how many wins we were going to have,” said Richard, the Big Ten Coach of the Year. “He did say to me, ‘Relax, you’re about to win six in a row.’ I said, ‘Yeah, get out of here.’ But we did.”
Divided, in a good way
In a first, the Pitino family will have to split up for the NCAA tournament, instead of gathering wherever Rick is coaching.
Richard is excited his brothers and cousins are headed to Milwaukee, while other family members will be in Indianapolis with Rick’s Cardinals.
Tournament time has come full circle for Richard. He has many March memories from his childhood and as an assistant coach under his father. And now his kids will get to see Dad’s Gophers in the Big Dance.
“March is a fun time for the family, especially since he’s won so much,” Richard said. “It’s been a part of our life, to go to his games, wherever the site may be. It’s always been a great reunion. It brings a different dynamic [this year], with everybody figuring out where they’re going to go now.”
At least Richard knows exactly where he’ll be when the madness begins: on the sidelines, coaching his own NCAA tournament team for the first time.