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.”