Pitino Jr. goes his own way
Published: Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 11:52 p.m.
The meeting between father and son took place in April, shortly after former Florida assistant Shaka Smart had left to become the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth.
“The toughest conversation I’ve ever had with any coach, now my son,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “I told him, you know, you’ve done an unbelievable job for me ... but I told him you have the opportunity to work under someone I love, somebody that’s going to teach you an awful lot, great place, and you can do your own thing.”
A few months later, sitting in his new office at the Florida basketball facility, new UF assistant basketball coach Richard Pitino chuckled when relayed the story.
“Yeah, he likes to make it sound like it was his decision,” the younger Pitino said, then added with emphasis. “I decided to leave.”
The comment was made not to disrespect his father, the only coach in college basketball history to lead three different programs to the Final Four. It was just meant to signify that, though grateful for the opportunities that his dad gave him, the 26-year-old Pitino is his own man with his own vision.
“It was hard because that was probably the first time in my life I had to make a life-changing decision like that,” he said. “Every other move I had made was kind of stepping up and it was a no-brainer. But everyone kind of told me the same thing, do what’s right for you in your career. And I thought it was right for me to get out and learn under another guy.”
The elder Pitino said it was hard to let his son go because he considers him “one of the best young recruiters in the game.” For a Florida program that’s had its share of recruiting misses since its hallowed 2004 class, the younger Pitino’s arrival is a welcome addition.
Pitino said he’s learned much about recruiting from his dad during his two-year tenure as a Louisville assistant.
“Recruiting I just think is hard work and you get better and better as you do it,” Pitino said. “It’s not easy. You learn from your mistakes. But I’d say I learned from my dad and growing up with him.”
When asked what mistakes Pitino felt he made, he responded: “Just learning what to say to people. I’ve kind of learned you just have to be honest with them. I think they appreciate our honesty. I think one thing I figured out is you’ve got to go after the guys that are as interested in you just as much as you are interested in them. It’s tough. You can’t waste your time with a lot of guys. But you know I certainly have not arrived yet as a recruiter. I’m still learning.”
Pitino learned the brutal lesson of honesty as a 5-foot-10 high school point guard who yearned to play at the college level (“I just wasn’t good enough,” he said). So while enrolled as a freshman and sophomore at Providence College, he took a job as an assistant coach at a private high school, St. Andrew’s, in Barrington, R.I.
In his final two years at Providence, Pitino worked as a student assistant, where he broke down film and helped in recruiting. From there, he began his career as an administrative assistant under Tom Herrion’s staff at College of Charleston. He spent two seasons as an assistant coach under Ron Everhart at Northeastern (2005-06) and Duquesne (2006-07) before joining his dad at Louisville.
The move for Pitino to work for Florida coach Billy Donovan is a natural transition. In many ways, Donovan is like a godfather or older brother. Pitino was just 4 when Donovan led Providence to the Final Four in 1987, but has more vivid recollections of Donovan when he worked for his dad as an assistant at Kentucky.
“It’s amazing to think what he’s accomplished when I knew him when he was just getting into it, to now where he’s a future Hall of Famer,” Pitino said. “He’s done unbelievable things.”
Donovan said Pitino already has settled into his new role.
“He’ll be a great asset,” Donovan said. “He’s done a great job recruiting already. He’s been very active. And the thing about him is he’s got a great personality, a great sense of humor and he’s a pleasure to be around. He’s got tremendous enthusiasm.”
With the July Division I recruiting evaluation period upcoming, Pitino will be on the road, scouting future talent. He’s already met the current members of the Florida team and is looking forward to working with them on the court next fall. And Pitino says he’s looking forward to learning all aspects of the game from not just Donovan, but from UF assistants Larry Shyatt and Rob Lanier, who were both former Division I head coaches.
“I think I need to improve in everything,” Pitino said. “I don’t know if I’m strong in anything just yet. The nice thing about coming here is not only can I learn from coach Donovan, but Rob and Shy are tremendously experienced coaches who have been head coaches before. I’m not great at one thing yet. I’m just trying to become great at all of those things.”
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