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.