NEW ORLEANS – Twenty-five years ago, Rick Pitino coached in a Final Four here. His son, Richard, was 4. Now he’s his dad’s right-hand guy.
“The way this game is intertwined is amazing,” Rick Pitino said Thursday morning before his Louisville Cardinals hit the interview rounds in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The last time he brought a team here in a Final Four was in 1987 when his star guard for Providence was Billy Donovan, now the Florida coach.
“In ’87 we had to go through Louisville to get to a Final Four. Now we’re [coaching] at Louisville and in a Final Four in New Orleans again, ” Rick Pitino said.
And then the 59-year-old father smiled, recalling how his son sat on Donovan’s lap in this same arena. Richard, now 29, interestingly, doesn’t even remember that Final Four.
“I really don’t,” he said with a laugh. “I have a bad memory.”
Perhaps, but he, too, knows how intertwined this game is.
Especially since he worked on his dad’s staff at Louisville from 2007 to 2009, leaving to go to, of all places, Florida, to be with Donovan. The same Billy the Kid, the sharpshooter who led PC here in 1987, who coached for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and who won NCAA titles of his own at Florida in 2006 and ’07. And then Richard Pitino came back to Louisville last April to be the associate coach on a staff now two victories from winning the national championship.
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“It’s been an absolutely unbelievable ride since the beginning of the Big East Tournament to now,” Richard Pitino said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
For the players also. Jared Swopshire was recruited by Richard when he came to Louisville from St. Louis and was sorry to see him leave for Florida.
“To have him back for my last season here has been great,” Swopshire said. “We’ve stayed in touch and he would come down and we’d get to talk and catch up. He works so hard, he’s such a great coach when it comes to scouting and breaking down film and all that stuff. He’s very good.”
The Cardinals, of course, stunned the college basketball world by first winning the Big East championship and then marching through four victories in the NCAA tournament against Davidson, New Mexico, Michigan State and Florida.
In mid-January, however, Louisville went through a stretch when it lost five of seven games.
“I think the hardest thing for me is seeing my dad lose,” Richard Pitino said. “Even so now with putting in the time and being a part of it, to be able to see him win and actually have some impact on the game, there’s no better feeling. I know that for the rest of my life there’s probably never going to be a high as good as this.”
Richard actually had no intention of ever joining his dad’s staff at Louisville, although he says, “He’s my best friend, he really is, and we hang out all the time.”
As the son of one of the most famous coaches in the country, Richard played basketball in high school, his first year in Lexington, Ky., where Rick was the Kentucky coach and has the 1996 NCAA title on his resume. Then Rick left to coach the Boston Celtics, and Richard went to high school there before going to Providence College.
At PC, he coached at a high school his first two years and then joined the PC staff as a student video coordinator for Tim Welsh. After graduation, Richard took a job at College of Charleston, but left after two months to join the Ron Everhart’s staff at Northeastern in Boston. When Everhart got the job at Duquesne, the younger Pitino went with him.
In 2007, an opening presented itself at Louisville, which two years earlier went to the Final Four under Rick Pitino.
“I don’t remember how it worked. I think it was Kevin Willard who left, he got a head job [at Iona; he’s now at Seton Hall] and I remember [Rick Pitino] told me, ‘Listen, I’m thinking of bringing you on,’ ” Richard Pitino said. “So even as an assistant at Duquesne, to be offered as an assistant at Louisville, just in our profession, I was all for it.”
So he went to Louisville.
“To be honest, I was not ready to do it. I really wasn’t. I was thrown into the fire and I really learned a lot on the fly. What happened was when I went two years under Billy, I came back I was so much more prepared to do the job this year than I was before.”
Donovan, like the elder Pitino, is a tireless worker. But there was more to learn than that.
“I learned so much, more than I ever could have dreamed of. He has a such a different way of going about things than my dad. It’s hard to put in words,” Richard Pitino said.
His dad is certainly known to be a tough guy, wired pretty tight, although he’s shown a more relaxed side of himself of late. Said Rick Pitino, “Richard’s more like Billy Donovan’s disposition than mine and I’d rather have it that way.”
“He’s a little more laid back than his dad,” Swopshire said. “But they’re very similar in that they have that passion for the game of basketball.”
That was another reason why it was good for him to get a different perspective from Donovan.
“Billy was so good to work for because Billy does so much and outworks so many people that you just try to keep up with Billy. That taught me a lot, just to see him be able to do all that stuff every single day,” Richard Pitino said. “It didn’t matter if it was in the middle of the season or if it was in June. He just put his heart and soul and that taught me a lot. He didn’t worry about little things, like fan support, he made the best of his situation. I learned a lot just being around his family, seeing a different way to have a family in this business as opposed to my family.”
Richard is in the middle of the five Pitino children. He and his wife, Jill, have a 11-month-old daughter, which also probably played into the equation last spring.
“My mom [Joanne], like every mother, always wanted me to come back. And my dad had lost some of his staff and I had always told him, ‘Listen, Dad, I’m not going to come back unless you really need me, because I have a great situation here at Florida, I don’t want to make another lateral move, I want to be a head coach some day, so unless you really feel like you need me, I don’t want to come back.’
“I wanted to come back to be around my family, but I knew that probably wasn’t going to be the right thing for my profession. So he loses his staff, I felt like I could bring some continuity to the situation, so I said I would do it. And I don’t regret it at all, because I feel like I’ve helped him a lot, he’s helped me a lot and we’ve had a lot of fun.”
Coming back was not without its potential pitfalls. Richard said he’s bounced the father-son thing off of others in the game.
For example, Bob Knight’s son, Pat, now the head coach at Lamar, “reached out to me and we talked because we played them this year. We talked and he gave me some good insight about the profession. And Kevin Willard working with his dad was helpful as well.”
One piece of advice Richard got was to break away and become a head coach.
“He’s ready to be a head coach himself,” Rick Pitino said. “I’m enjoying it because I know this isn’t going to last a long time.”
“I think I’m ready. It just depends on the right situation,” Richard Pitino said. “I’ve got a great situation at Louisville, I enjoy being around him every day, being around our family and being around our kids, so I wouldn’t leave unless it was really a good situation.”
Winning, of course, hasn’t hurt, but the Pitinos enjoy being together anyway. Father and son play golf together, go out to eat, enjoy watching baseball – especially the Yankees – and share Rick’s well-known passion for horse racing.
“We’ve always had a great relationship. But to be able to experience this, I’m sure we’ll both look back at it and really enjoy it,” Richard said. “But you know how it is, the journey is probably a lot better than the destination and we’re both entrenched in this right now. We’ll look back on it and we’ll share some good memories.”