Ready? New Gophers coach was born with a whistle

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2013 - 9:58 AM

Don't let his age fool you. At 30, Richard Pitino has soaked up -- and espoused -- the basketball wisdom of his mentors.

When Larry Shyatt heard the news of Richard Pitino’s hiring at Minnesota, he picked up the phone and called his old friend.

But Shyatt, the 61-year-old men’s basketball coach at Wyoming, wasn’t calling to offer words of wisdom to the 30-year-old embarking on his second year of head coaching experience, this time at a Big Ten school.

He was calling to listen.

“Usually, when you speak to Richard, you listen,” said Shyatt, who was an assistant coach with Pitino at Florida from 2009-2011. “In my case, where I come from, I like to listen to him. I learn more from listening.”

At first glance, it seems like a strange thing to say about the new hire who already has been dubbed “the kid coach.”

But throughout Pitino’s past and present, that sentiment is echoed — in fact, everyone who talked about him Thursday described Pitino as mature beyond his years.

Young, certainly. Raw? No, say those who know him.

“For anybody jealous of his age,” Shyatt said, “I’ll tell you what, he’s way beyond — in terms of maturity and intellect — any young coach that I’ve been around except perhaps Shaka [Smart at VCU].”

It’s quite a compliment, especially considering how much Gophers fans coveted Smart — whom Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague originally hired when he was at VCU — to be their next head coach. And it’s tough to not have doubts considering Pitino — son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino — has only a single season of head coaching experience in the rear-view mirror after taking the lead job at Florida International before last season.

Look a little deeper into his résumé, however, and the greenness starts to fade a bit.

Pitino has been around basketball — good basketball — all of his life. Growing up, he hung around his dad’s New York Knicks and then a Kentucky team that went to the Final Four in 1993 and then won the national title in 1996.

Pitino has seven years of experience as an assistant, going from Northeastern to Duquesne before spending a combined five years working for his father at Louisville and Billy Donovan — the other figure he publicly has credited with his early success and coaching style — at Florida before he landed at FIU. He took over that program on the cusp of 13 losing seasons and churned out an 18-14 record.

Along the way, he gained an impressive reputation among those in the industry as a basketball savant with a tireless work ethic, natural relationship skills and a knack for solving sticky problems — skills that were tested and developed in a new way when he first started at Louisville in 2007.

“When you work for [Rick] Pitino, it’s a different world you live in,” said Steve Masiello, coach at Manhattan College and a former assistant at Louisville with Richard Pitino and longtime friend of the family, who started out as a Knicks ball boy for Rick in sixth grade. “Rick Pitino would come into a staff meeting when you’re playing UConn on Big Monday, and you’re in charge of the game plan — you’re telling him what to do,” Masiello said. “I think that’s why Pitino’s guys have so much success after Rick is because he prepared us so well for that next step.”

By the time FIU athletic director Pete Garcia decided to look for a new coach last year, the search quickly narrowed.

“The more people I talked to, the more people that kept pointing back to him,” Garcia said. “They said this guy, even though he’s 29, will be the best up-and-coming coach in America.”

He didn’t disappoint Garcia, who knew after the first interview that Pitino was his guy. The young coach came in with an impressive and detailed plan to turn the program around both on the basketball court and with his players in the classroom. He brought in eight new players, started two walk-ons, and still nearly managed to make the NCAA tournament.

The Panthers adopted a pressuring defense and an up-tempo style of play reminiscent of his father and Dovovan. At the same time, the program, which had some academic issues heading into the season, turned around in that regard, too.

“The first week, I run into him — he’s on campus doing class checks himself,” Garcia said. “He goes out and does more than he promised. So in one year’s time, he has turned around a program.”

It was one of the first moments Pitino was put on a stage by himself — tested at the helm of his first ship. But young or not, the new Gophers coach has fostered a reputation that has given those who surround him complete confidence as he heads into the next stage of his journey, even if some in Minnesota might be wary of his age.

Take, for example, his father — who got his first head-coaching job at an even younger age — who knows his son is well prepared for his next challenge.

“He is more than ready,” the elder Pitino said in a news conference at the Final Four on Thursday. “What he did at Florida International I never thought anybody could do. He took walk-ons, eight new players, he turned around a bad academic situation and won 18 games and was a bucket away from going to the NCAA [tournament] in his first year. So he is ready to coach. I feel bad that I drove him that hard — now I’m happy I did.”

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