Jamion Christian and Richard Pitino were both hired as first-time head coaches in 2012, becoming two of the youngest in the country to run their own Division I basketball programs at age 29.
Some people thought they were ready, some didn’t.
After one season, Pitino moved on quickly from Florida International to Minnesota. Christian remained at Mount St. Mary’s and will bring his Mountaineers to Williams Arena on Wednesday night. The challenges they face, now as 34-year-old coaches, are similar: trying to win while still forming their identity.
“I can’t imagine for Richard, because he’s the son of a Hall of Fame coach [Rick Pitino], one of the best that’s ever done it,” Christian said. “So he’s got dual things he’s working on there. He’s trying to establish himself as his own man. He’s also trying to establish himself as a different identity than his father. I can see that being difficult, but I think, in time, he’s going to do a great job.”
Coming off an 8-23 campaign, Pitino is off to a stronger start at 2-0 after the Gophers used a 28-3 second-half run Monday to pull away from Texas-Arlington in an 84-67 comeback win.
“We got a long way to go, obviously,” Pitino said. “But it’s a totally different team, with much more balance and depth. It’s a fun team to coach.”
The Mountaineers (0-2) finished 14-19 last season and fell to West Virginia (87-59) and Iowa State (73-55) in their first two games this year.
But Christian expects Mount St. Mary’s to compete for the Northeast Conference title. It plays up-tempo, with aggressive full-court pressure defensively. Christian mimics Virginia Commonwealth’s style, as he was on Shaka Smart’s staff in 2011-12.
When Smart left to become Texas’ coach last year, Christian was reportedly a candidate for the Rams’ opening. VCU eventually hired another former assistant, Will Wade, to replace Smart. But Christian’s immediate success at Mount St. Mary’s made him a hot name to watch.
The Mountaineers went from 6-19 in the last season under Robert Burke to 18-14 after reaching the Northeast Conference tournament final in Christian’s first season in 2012-13. The following year, Mount St. Mary’s won the Northeast tournament title to receive an NCAA tournament bid.
Christian, a Virginia native and former three-time captain at Mount St. Mary’s, says he uses his youth in recruiting.
“It’s a big-time advantage being able to relate to the guys and understand what they’re going through,” he said. “For me personally, I’m all about loving our guys up and being with them every single day.”
After a surprisingly successful start to his head-coaching career, Christian has struggled to move his program forward at Mount St. Mary’s (63-67 overall in five seasons). But, like Pitino, he remains optimistic.
“It’s hard because people might try to use your youth as a negative,” Christian said. “But the reality is I’m an extremely enthusiastic, high-energy, love-our-guys type of coach.
“I want to be a guy who can mentor them and help them become the people I believe they can. I see the bigger picture. And when you do that, you’ll find victories in a lot of different ways.”