Richard Pitino learned from a legend, then succeeded a Hall of Famer at FIU and a national championship coach at Minnesota. Now he’s on the cusp of his first NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach.
Richard Pitino’s first coaching job with a major program wasn’t a case of nepotism, no matter what anyone wants to believe.
The younger Pitino earned his stripes at College of Charleston, Northeastern and Duquesne before his father, Rick, added the then-24-year-old Richard to his staff at Louisville in 2007. And Richard wasn’t just handed a head coach-in-waiting title when he returned for a second stint with the Cardinals as associate head coach in 2011, either.
Following in the footsteps of a father who is the only coach in college basketball history to take three different schools to the Final Four and has won a pair of national championships can be both a blessing and a curse. The lessons are priceless, but the expectations are limitless.
So when Richard Pitino presided over Minnesota’s 8-23 disappointment last season – his third as the Golden Gophers’ head coach – he wasn’t immune to getting the cold shoulder. After all, his father’s worst record in 30 years as a college head coach is 13-14 at Boston University back in 1980-81, a season that ended a little over a year before Richard was born.
“It wasn’t like people were throwing batteries at me, but people just weren’t talking to me,” Pitino remembers.
His father has been his biggest supporter and can be seen at Minnesota games when time allows. Rick was there when when his son guided the Golden Gophers to a school-record 25 wins (the 31 from the 1996-97 Final Four team have been vacated) and an NIT championship in his first season replacing Tubby Smith, who succeeded Rick at Kentucky and won a national championship there in 1997-98. And he’s been there while those same people who doubted the younger Pitino now relish in the fact that Minnesota is 22-7 just a year following that rebuilding season, a lock for the Big Dance.
It’ll be the first NCAA Tournament appearance for Pitino, who fell one game short in his only season at FIU. He replaced NBA Hall of Fame player Isiah Thomas as head coach of the Panthers and inspired a 10-win turnaround and trip to the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship game in 2012-13 before accepting the Minnesota job.
The turnaround with the Gophers is even more impressive as Pitino continues to build a successful program in the Big Ten. Once left for dead during a five-game losing streak from Jan. 11-28, Minnesota has rattled off seven straight wins heading into Thursday’s home game against Nebraska.
Pitino saw the fruits of his labor Saturday at Williams Arena, as the Gophers played in front of a packed house for an 81-71 win over Penn State.
“Winning helps, obviously, but it is cool to see (the trajectory heading) in the right way and more empty seats were being filled,” Pitino said. “Like I’ve said, we don’t need (a big crowd) against Wisconsin or Indiana, we need it against Penn State. I think the town was proud of these guys.”
It’s difficult not to be. Junior Nate Mason has developed into one of Big Ten’s best point guards. Sophomore Jordan Murphy has been a double-double machine lately and is averaging 17.2 points and 14 rebounds in his last five games. Junior Illinois State transfer and Minnesota native Reggie Lynch is coming off an 11-block performance, and Amir Coffey is one of the top freshmen in the conference.
Their development coincides with Pitino’s growing accomplishments as a young head coach, which could include Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. He’ll soon be able to add an NCAA Tournament appearance to the list.
“I really thought we’d make a big turnaround, and we did,” Pitino said. “Our newcomers deserve the credit. The returners who stuck it out and believed in what we’re doing also do. It’s fun to be a part of. This is what you dream of as a coach.”