Pitino is ready

Published 9:44 am Friday, April 5, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Rick Pitino is one proud papa.

A day after his son Richard Pitino agreed to become the next head coach at Minnesota, Rick Pitino proclaimed the 30-year-old up-and-comer “more than ready” for the challenge. Richard Pitino only has one year of head coaching experience, but he has served as an assistant under his father at Louisville and under Billy Donovan at Florida.

“I drove him harder than I drove Billy so he’s more than ready,” Rick Pitino said Thursday in Atlanta, where his Cardinals are preparing to take on Wichita State in the Final Four. “What he did this year at Florida International, I never thought anybody could do. He took walk-ons, eight new players, he turned around a bad academic situation and won 18 games and was a bucket away from going to the NCAA (tournament) his first year.“

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So he is ready to coach. I feel bad that I drove him that hard, now I’m happy I did.”

Richard Pitino went 18-14 at Florida International after taking over a reeling program that suffered under former coach Isiah Thomas. He fits the profile that Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague has preferred in the past — a young, hungry, charismatic grinder who relishes a challenge. But it took Teague a while to land on Pitino.

Teague fired Tubby Smith on March 25 after six seasons at the school. He put in inquiries with bigger names like Shaka Smart, who Teague hired at VCU, and Fred Hoiberg, Brad Stevens, Flip Saunders and Andy Enfield. But it wasn’t until Teague called Donovan earlier this week that Pitino emerged as a serious candidate.

“He asked me who do I know; someone who is maybe not on the radar, someone who was young and hungry,” Donovan told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Florida Gulf Coast’s Enfield was mentioned, but he was already negotiating with USC.

“One guy you need to talk to,” Donovan told Teague, “is Richard Pitino.”

Donovan and Teague have developed a strong relationship dating to Teague’s days at VCU. The first basketball coach Teague worked with there was Anthony Grant, a former assistant for Donovan. When Grant left for Alabama, Teague went to another Donovan assistant in Smart, who has emerged as one of the hottest young coaches in the country.

“I told him, ‘If you don’t hire him now, you’re going to hear from him three, four, five years from now and say, ‘I had a chance to hire this guy,”’ Donovan said.

After swinging and missing on a handful of other coaches, including Smart, Teague decided to try to find the next Shaka. Richard Pitino is described as a dogged recruiter and extremely hard worker who has tried to distinguish himself as more than just Rick Pitino’s son.

He worked for two head coaches who have made it a priority to give their assistants the kind of responsibilities that will prepare them for running a program.

“He’s a lot older experience-wise than his age just because of the house he grew up in,” said Donovan, who has known Richard Pitino since he was a toddler. “He has a chance to be a terrific coach.”

When Rick Pitino spoke to Teague, he told the athletic director that “we all love our children. The sun rises when your children wake up in the morning.”

“I did not recommend him, but I put in a call and I said I would not second that recommendation if I didn’t think he could not only succeed, but do great things,” Rick Pitino said.

As for the age question, Rick Pitino was 26 when he got his first head coaching job. Donovan was 27.

“I don’t think anyone is thinking Richard Pitino is a proven coach at a high level,” Donovan said. “But who has the potential to become that? Richard has that potential. He’s got all the tools.”

When Minnesota first approached Richard about the job, Rick Pitino said he made a few calls to get a read on the situation. Smith brought the Golden Gophers to three NCAA tournaments and picked up a victory this year against UCLA. But Teague felt the program had grown stagnant and a long-promised practice facility has yet to come to fruition.

But after some reconnaissance work on Teague, associate athletic director Mike Ellis and the program in general, Rick Pitino endorsed the job to his son.

“After checking it out, I just got the most glowing reports about all of them,” Rick Pitino said. “They were all at VCU when they hired Shaka. Billy recommended Shaka. I just heard so many great things about how they support their coaches. That’s all I needed to hear.”

The good news came on Wednesday afternoon.

“I got a text from him and it said, ‘Everything’s great. Call me. And Go Gophers,”’ Rick Pitino said. “I had to get off the phone. I rushed a very important phone call to get off the phone to get on the phone with him. And then my wife and I just hugged.”