Rick Pitino’s son follows in his footsteps, but only so far

Rick Pitino
ick Pitino listens during an NCAA college basketball news conference in Louisville, Ky. –Alton Strupp/The Courier-Journal via AP, File

MINNEAPOLIS — You do not need to squint hard when you look at Richard Pitino, Minnesota’s fifth-year basketball coach, to see his father, Rick, the Hall of Famer who recently lost his job at Louisville after one scandal too many.

It is all there on the surface: the fortress of hair, the disarmingly piercing eyes, the regal poise — shoulders back, arms crossed.

“Every time I see Richard and hear him speak — he’s got a lot of his dad’s mannerisms,” said Billy Donovan, the Oklahoma City Thunder coach who was a point guard for Rick Pitino at Providence, his assistant at Kentucky and, later, Richard Pitino’s boss at Florida. “It reminds me of his father.”

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Since Rick Pitino, 65, was effectively fired in September after the Louisville basketball program he had led since 2001 was implicated in widespread corruption charges brought by federal prosecutors, Richard, 35, has been able to keep up with his father a little more. Rick is expected to be in Brooklyn, New York, this weekend as the No. 14 Golden Gophers (5-0), who in March made their first NCAA tournament appearance in four years, play Massachusetts (3-1) on Friday at Long Island University-Brooklyn and No. 25 Alabama (4-0) on Saturday at Barclays Center.

“Whatever the narrative is, there’s nothing you can do about that,” Richard Pitino said in an interview in his office last week, referring to his father’s termination. “But for me, I look at it like, he’s had 35, 40 great years in this profession. I’ve had a couple. What would I give to have the shelf life he’s had?”

The anxiety behind that last question hints at a crucial difference between the outwardly similar father and son: the kinds of careers they have, and aspire to.

Richard Pitino is by most definitions a wunderkind. He was named the head coach at the midmajor Florida International at 29, and was hired by Minnesota, an esteemed Big Ten program, at 30.

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But Rick Pitino got his first head coaching job, at Boston University, when he was 26. When he was Richard’s age, Rick Pitino was coming off his first Final Four run and was taking over the New York Knicks. Two years later, he was the head coach at Kentucky. Less than a decade later, he won the first of his two national titles.

Yet Richard Pitino sees the contrast with his father not in terms of achievement, but as one of style.

“I used to argue with my dad all the time,” Richard said. “It was funny, because I said, ‘You were at Providence College for two years, you left and became the head coach of the Knicks, and then the head coach at Kentucky.’”

“I said to him,” Richard added, “You don’t understand, building a program after being one place for one year, at FIU — it’s different than what you did. You were great at it. But I’ve got my other fight. And it takes time.”

For instance, Richard Pitino sees his tenure’s turning point not in the National Invitational Tournament championship he won in his first season nor in last year’s 24-10 campaign, but rather in the Gophers’ forgettable 2015-16 season.

That season, his young Minnesota team went 8-23 — 2-16 in conference play — enduring home losses to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Pitino suspended three players for four games in connection with a sex tape one of them had posted online. Another top player, Reggie Lynch, who had spent the year sitting out per transfer rules, was arrested in a sexual assault case, leading to his suspension. (Prosecutors declined to charge Lynch and his suspension was lifted in time for the 2016-17 season; he now starts for the Gophers.)

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Around the same time, a new athletic director, Mark Coyle, arrived on campus to clean up after a sexual harassment scandal involving his predecessor. That change in leadership — combined with the Gophers’ poor record and off-court issues — inevitably prompted speculation that a new basketball coach was imminent, too.

With boosters and alumni demanding his firing, Pitino had his players write personal letters to the university’s president, Eric Kaler, apologizing for the team’s behavior and its performance. “Stick with us,” one wrote. “We won’t let you down.”

Kaler, struck by how each letter was different and in his mind genuinely heartfelt, kept them in a file in his office. The sentiments, and the contrition, probably helped Pitino keep his job. A year later, he was named the Big Ten’s coach of the year, and the Gophers, with 24 wins, were back in the NCAA tournament.

“We had a really difficult season, and three kids that start for me right now could have transferred,” Pitino said. “Most kids transfer when crap hits the fan and your coach is going to get fired and they hear all those things — most kids go. The proudest thing for me is that locker room stayed intact and we were able to weather the storm.”

As it turned out, Coyle, who had not known Pitino before he was hired at Minnesota, was impressed.

“It’s very easy when we go through difficult times to point the finger at someone else,” Coyle said. “Richard and his team did the opposite: They pointed it at themselves.”

One of those players who stayed, Dupree McBrayer, said that the experience changed Pitino as well.

“He’s not as crazy,” McBrayer said. Specifically, McBrayer noted, there has been less yelling from Pitino since that season.

The frequent moves throughout Richard Pitino’s childhood, prompted by his father’s peripatetic career, have had an important influence on him. Richard Pitino seems to have internalized the sort of even-keeled temperament that is often inherited from tumultuous childhoods — like, say, watching his father leave Kentucky for the Boston Celtics and then, a few years later, return to the state to lead Kentucky’s archrival, Louisville.

“All the people that revered him hated him,” Richard said of his father’s return to the Bluegrass State. “All the people who hated him before at Louisville now revered him. So I just understood the absurdity of the world that we live in in sports.”

That is the lesson that Richard Pitino has for his family, including his father, only months after the Pitinos came face to face with another scandal.

“I try to get them to see the world’s going to resume,” he said. “Times will get better.”