When the Gophers play Michigan State in their biggest home game yet this season Sunday, it won’t be a coaching matchup between Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino’s son.
Maybe that was the story line when Richard Pitino first took on the Spartans and the iconic Izzo six years ago, as a newly hired 30-year-old college basketball coach. No longer.
How often anymore do you hear his Hall of Fame father’s name linked to him and the Gophers?
Richard Pitino doesn’t. And he prefers it that way.
“I’ve obviously had some success,” Pitino said. “For me, I don’t look at being in his shadow, because I’m not coaching at Louisville or Kentucky. I’ve never really felt like I’ve ever been under his shadow as the head coach at Minnesota.”
Pitino wanted to forge his own path, and he’s done so in his seven seasons in Minnesota. He’s also learned how career-defining it is to go your own way. Other second-generation college basketball coaches have discovered that as well, some sooner than others.
Doors open quickly for sons of coaches, but for every Tony Bennett, Eric Musselman or Scott Drew, there’s a Pat Knight or Sean Sutton. Pitino is somewhere in the middle. Outcomes of games such as Sunday’s will weigh heavily on where Pitino ultimately falls on that scale.
Being a Big Ten coach comes with its own pressure — but not like running the same program or coaching in the same leagues where your father won NCAA titles or went to Final Fours.
Pitino didn’t want that.
“It would’ve been a totally different element — where you’re going to be constantly compared to your dad,” he said. “I’m in the Big Ten. I think after [seven] years being in it, being to the NCAA tournament two of the last three years and winning an NIT title, I think now my body of work kind of speaks for itself a little bit.”
The Gophers are 123-100 under Pitino since he was hired before the 2013-14 season. Fans have celebrated the highs of two NCAA tournaments and his 2017 Big Ten Coach of the Year honor — and they’ve dreaded the lows of a couple of losing seasons and inconsistency recruiting local talent.
Pitino is a survivor of sorts. His critics can be loud, and their voices were rising again earlier this season when the Gophers got off to a 4-5 start and top recruits committed to rivals. But the Gophers have rebounded, winning three of their past four to earn some NCAA tournament talk.
For all the ups and downs, the criticisms and accolades, there’s this: Later this week, Pitino will become the Gophers’ leader in games coached this millennium. And his predecessors, such as Tubby Smith and Dan Monson, and Big Ten peers such as Izzo are the coaches to whom Pitino is most often compared around here. Not his father.
“People are starting to understand that he’s got his system, he’s got his beliefs of how he runs a program and what he does,” Pitino said. “I’m proud to be my father’s son, but he really doesn’t have a whole lot of influence in our program.”
Replacing a legend
Pat Knight couldn’t build the same résumé after replacing his father, Bobby Knight, at Texas Tech in 2007. Now an Indiana Pacers scout, he managed only a 79-123 record in seven seasons at Tech and Lamar.
A quicker flameout happened with Eddie Sutton’s oldest son, Sean, who replaced him at Oklahoma State and went 39-29 in two seasons from 2006-08. Cowboys athletic director Mike Holder said then that Sean was a “victim of high expectations.”
Scott Sutton, who coached against the Gophers as an Oklahoma State assistant this season, had a longer head coaching career on a different route: 18 seasons at Oral Roberts. He couldn’t fault his brother for wanting to lead a Power Five program but thinks Sean probably should’ve gone his own way, too.
“There was a lot of pressure on him,” Scott said. “It’s tough to follow a legend anywhere, but especially if you’re that coach’s son. ... There wasn’t nearly as much pressure on Richard [Pitino] and me for going away and coaching at another program and not following our fathers.”
With as much success as they already have had, Bennett and Drew have become poster children for sons of coaches.
From 2006-08, Bennett won 26 games in consecutive seasons after taking over for his dad, Dick, at Washington State. That led to a better job at Virginia, where he has made the NCAA tournament in six of his first nine years. And then came last spring in Minneapolis, when Bennett not only reached a Final Four, like his father did at Wisconsin in 2000, but reached the mountaintop in leading the Cavaliers to the NCAA title.
“There are so many great coaches — fathers and sons who have coached at this level who are great coaches and just haven’t had the fortune to do it,” Tony Bennett told reporters at the Final Four. “Now he can’t look at me and say, ‘I’m one up on you, son.’ There’s no bragging rights on his part now.”
Drew was a longtime assistant under his father, Homer, at Valparaiso from 1993-2002, and it seemed only natural that he took control of the program after his dad. But Drew wanted to make his own way and left after one season.
“My goal was always to try to get to a conference and a school where you get a chance to go to Final Fours every year,” said Drew, now the head coach at Baylor. “The court was named after him. There wasn’t much more to accomplish there.”
Another of Homer’s sons, Bryce, had a lengthier tenure as Valpo’s head coach. He turned that into a coaching job at Vanderbilt, but it’s hard to top Scott’s achievements. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the nation for the second time in the past three seasons, and he’s been to a pair of Elite Eights and Sweet 16s in his 17 seasons in Waco, Texas.
Growing up, Scott said his mother wanted him to go to law school, but “I think one of the biggest compliments a son can give his father is to try to be like him.”
Always comparing, contrasting
Minnesota basketball fans remember Bill Musselman as the highly successful Gophers coach in the 1970s, which included a 1972 Big Ten championship, and as the first coach of the Timberwolves in 1989.
Before his father died at 59, Eric Musselman felt like he hadn’t accomplished much himself in coaching, but their careers are beginning to look very similar. They both coached in the NBA, college and CBA (father with 345 wins, son with 378). They both took a few years off to focus on their families before later rebuilding college programs. And Musselman is trending upward again as a college coach. He went to three NCAA tournaments with Nevada, which led to his current job at Arkansas.
“There really wasn’t a true shadow,” he said. “The whole time I was in Nevada, never did I have one time anybody mix up my dad and I. But it’s really, really eerie just the similarities of everything. It wasn’t by design. It just happened.”
Musselman, 55, said his parents steered him toward the management side of basketball. His first job was as the general manager of the CBA’s Rapid City Thrillers — a franchise his father had led to three league titles — but he quickly took over as head coach after a year. He’s been coaching ever since.
Similarly, Pitino didn’t listen when his dad told him and his brothers at an early age to avoid the coaching business.
“When you have a father who is a coach, he’s going to warn you about the challenges,” Pitino said. “Whether it’s pressure from the fans, whether it’s pressure from the media, whether it’s so many things out of your control.”
Pitino developed his own style while serving as an assistant for his father at Louisville and for Billy Donovan at Florida. Donovan said Pitino could have become the coach-in-waiting with the Cardinals when he returned there as an associate head coach in 2011. Pitino, though, felt he was ready to become a head coach sooner, and he left after one year for the Florida International job.
“He knows he can’t be his dad — he’s not going to try to be his dad,” Donovan told the Star Tribune after Pitino went from FIU to the Gophers in 2013. “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.”
Pitino’s father stalked the sidelines as a college head coach in more than 1,000 games until a recruiting scandal at Louisville got him fired in 2017. But even if Rick was still coaching, he no longer would be the measuring stick Richard is held up against. Later this week in Illinois, Pitino will coach his 225th Gophers game, passing Dan Monson (224 games) and distancing himself further from Tubby Smith (205) on the U’s experience list. He’ll be the dean of Gophers coaches of the post-Clem Haskins era.
Having a father who achieved so much as a coach could’ve turned Pitino away from the profession, or tempted him to follow directly in his father’s footsteps. But he’s grateful now for the opportunity to build his own legacy in a place where he’s not just Rick Pitino’s son.
“I’ve always been respectful of the opportunity and the doors that were opened for me by my last name,” Pitino said. “I don’t look at it like I’m following my Hall of Fame dad’s footsteps. I look at it as I was getting into a very challenging profession in college basketball. And like any job there are so many difficulties but also so many rewarding things.”