Lindsay Whalen didn’t know Richard Pitino well.
Whalen’s husband, a top amateur golfer, had a good impression from meeting Pitino on the course a few years ago. And Whalen attended some games at the Barn, but that was the extent of their paths crossing.
That changed quickly when Whalen was hired to coach Gophers women’s basketball. And in the five months since she moved into the basketball facility, Whalen has found the coach who occupies the floor below her to be a valuable supporter.
“He’s been really good for me,” Whalen said. “The first day I got hired, we talked and have since. I was so overwhelmed the first few days. He was there to kind of calm me down a little bit.”
Pitino is helping Whalen navigate the behind-the-scenes minutiae of running a college program. They exchange text messages and show support for each other’s programs, and Whalen has been soaking up tips as she transitions from legendary Gophers and Lynx player to coach.
Pitino, who turned 36 on Sept. 16, is five months younger than Whalen, but he’s entering his 14th season coaching Division I basketball, seven of those as a head coach.
“There’s coaching, and then there’s running a program,” Pitino said. “There’s no doubt in my mind she’s going to be a terrific coach and terrific recruiter. It’s just all those other things as a young coach I learned every single year that I might not have thought of the year before. Those things I helped her with.”
After attending the April 12 news conference announcing Whalen was taking over at her alma mater, Pitino walked up and asked Whalen how he could help.
“One of those coolest things he told me was ‘just remember, you’re always selling and always promoting the program,’ ” Whalen said. “He said, ‘The program is first. Always keep that in mind. Everywhere you go and every time you speak in public you want to put your program in the best light.’ That was probably some of the best advice I got throughout this whole process.”
Whalen and husband Ben Greve have long been Gophers supporters, and Greve, a former U golfer, was excited to meet Pitino a few summers ago. During a state amateur championship at Interlachen, Greve recalled how Pitino showed up to cheer on U golfers.
“He was just out in a golf shirt, shorts and a hat following around some of the Gophers kids,” Greve said. “Afterward, he was talking to the Gophers golfers, and you could tell they loved it. He didn’t have to do that. I think you can get the wrong impression with just his dad’s [firing and scandal] being in the media and stuff that’s happened. But my experiences with him have been great.”
Greve described Pitino’s support for his wife’s efforts as genuine.
“I know he’s been texting in support of different things,” Greve said. “When she signed a recruit, he found out right away through social media and was one of the first ones to congratulate her. I’ve heard her say, ‘He’s been really good, helpful and supportive.’ ”
After her WNBA career came to a close last month, Whalen reached out to Pitino to ask about recruiting and his team’s offseason progress. Pitino will continue to make sure support goes both ways.
“I think it’s really cool to have a lot of coaches that support each other,” Pitino said. “We’re all going through something with our team. We’ve got a lot of stress and pressure. So it’s just nice to have a confidant and pulling for each other.”