Richard Pitino made his peace with the reality long ago. No matter what he does as a coach, he knows comparisons to his father always will be made.
Florida International’s coach doesn’t mind.
“I, more than anything, embrace it,” he said.
There will be someone else for him to embrace tonight – his aforementioned father. Richard Pitino gets to match wits with Rick Pitino in Louisville, Ky., when FIU (3-4) travels to meet the fifth-ranked Cardinals (9-1). The matchup was scheduled not long after the younger Pitino left his dad’s staff to coach the Panthers.
It shapes up as a mismatch. Louisville is a major national-title hopeful with a storied coach who has taken teams to six final fours and won 638 games. FIU was picked to finish last in its division of the Sun Belt Conference, made its only trip to the NCAA Tournament in 1995 and has a coach with exactly three wins on his résumé.
None of that will matter today.
“I don’t worry about it going away. I don’t want it to go away,” Richard Pitino said of the parallels drawn between him and his father. “I talk to him every day about basketball. Putting him being my father aside, I think he’s the greatest coach out there.”
It’s a total family affair. There was a family dinner planned for Tuesday night after FIU’s arrival. Richard Pitino and his family were planning to spend the night at his parents’ home, and today will carry more emotion than even a father-son game ordinarily would. It’s the annual Billy Minardi Classic for the Cardinals, a contest named for Rick Pitino’s brother-in-law who was killed in the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Billy was very close with Richard and vice versa,” Rick Pitino said Tuesday when asked his thoughts on what the night will mean to the family. “It’s going to mean a great deal to him, seeing his uncle’s picture around. Our family right now is more apprehensive and nervous than Richard and me. We know it’s a basketball game. We know what it’s all about.”
Rick Pitino has been in these close-to-the-heart games before, with 24 of his other former assistants or players having become head coaches. Louisville officials said there have been 44 instances of them coaching against their former mentor – with Rick Pitino going 34-10 in those games.
Included in that record: Rick Pitino is 7-0 against Billy Donovan, someone that Richard Pitino counts as an idol. FIU’s style, quite simply, is one that meshes the teachings of Donovan’s offense and Pitino’s defense, and that isn’t by accident.
“I’ve told him, stay after him,” said Rick Pitino, referring to how his son mimics part of Donovan’s style. “That’s your blueprint. There’s no better model in the coaching ranks.”
Also according to Louisville, it’s the 17th time in NCAA Division I history that a father will coach against his son. The dads are 14-2 in those games, the most recent when Arkansas and Nolan Richardson topped Tennessee State and Nolan Richardson III 90-68 on Nov. 17, 2000. (That had three generations of the Richardson clan, with Nolan Richardson’s grandson Garrett playing for Tennessee State.)
Maybe Rick Pitino should take note: That game was a three-point contest with 7 minutes left.
“He’s got a great group of young men,” Rick Pitino said of his son’s team. “They’re working real hard for him.”
Richard Pitino isn’t the only son of a famed coach roaming FIU’s campus these days, either.
The men’s soccer coach at FIU is Kenny Arena, the son of former U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena, now the coach of Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. While the younger Pitino and Arena – both of whom have incredibly similar looks to their fathers – haven’t sat down and swapped stories about what it was like growing up in a coach’s world, both acknowledge their last names raise eyebrows and expectations.
“It is quite an honor and becomes more of an honor the older I get,” Kenny Arena said. “I appreciate more and more what my father did, and is still doing, in his career.”
If nothing else, the scouting reports for this FIU-Louisville game will be comprehensive.
As a recruiter, Richard Pitino got several of Louisville’s current players to sign with the Cardinals and still texts some of them. Rick Pitino – who has contact with some Panthers players that he’s gotten to know now – has been in some FIU practices and even seen them play in person already this season, checking them out while on a break from a recruiting trip. He said watching his son coach made him sick with nervousness.
The younger Pitino got a win that night, topping Stetson 82-79.
“People always ask me the question: ‘How are you like your dad as a coach?’ And I hate that question,” Richard Pitino said. “You’re asking me to compare myself as a coach to a guy who’s won a national title, been to six final fours and won more than 600 games. I’m not him. I’m not trying to live up to his legacy. To me, the comparisons are silly.”
Maybe, but today, they’ll be inevitable.
“I think Richard has matured the right way,” said Rick Pitino, who’s having his wife sit near the FIU bench tonight. “Nothing’s been given to him. Much has been earned. When he was an assistant here, I made him work twice as hard as the other assistants. He just worked really, really hard.”