Of course No. 5 Louisville coach Rick Pitino recognizes the coach he’ll see on the FIU bench Wednesday night. His movements and style look almost as familiar to Pitino as family. In fact, somebody Pitino considers about as close as family.
“He’s much more like [University of Florida coach] Billy Donovan than he is me,” Pitino said of Richard Pitino, his son and first-year FIU coach. “I just think he has more of the mannerisms — the way he takes off his jacket on the bench. He’s very similar to what Billy does.
“I think that’s perfect. I always told him to emulate Billy Donovan. My family has always considered Billy a model young man.”
The closest Pitino the father came to a game such as Thursday’s were the games he coached against Donovan, a star on Pitino’s 1987 Final Four team at Providence and later an assistant under Pitino. But as much as Pitino thinks of Donovan, Donovan’s not the Division I coach with the same last name, head shape and very similar sound.
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Richard Pitino, 29, has downplayed the son vs. father story line to this matchup since shortly after his hiring made a scheduling of the game seem inevitable (Pitino the Younger, at his introductory news conference, did say his father texted him, “I never got to spank you as a child. Would you like to get a spanking this year?”).
But this is a unique trip for him, both as a son and a coach. His wife Jill and toddler daughter Ava came along and were greeted upon exiting airport security by family who live in Louisville. Also, FIU’s Pitino did two turns as an assistant in Louisville under his father.
“It’s going to be strange,” Richard Pitino said. “You try to make it about your team as much as possible. You try to focus on the game plan. You try to focus on playing to the very best of your ability. That’s going to consume a lot of our time going into the game. That being said, to act as if playing against my dad … that’s a weird thing. Rooting against my dad is something I’ve never done.
“I’m looking forward to it. I think it’ll be good for our guys to play in that type of environment, that type of talent level will show where our guys are. Our guys are just like any other kids — they think they can compete with the best.”
Between those stints, Richard Pitino worked on Donovan’s Florida staff for two seasons.
Richard Pitino returned to an associate coach position with his father, who noticed more maturity and ability to handle more responsibility.
“When he left the first time, to work with Billy, he wasn’t ready,” Rick Pitino said.
“He was an associate coach, the second time around and ran the whole program. He was more than ready.”
The list of people watching FIU games via live streaming might not be long, but it definitely includes the elder Pitino if at all possible. Then, he watches game tape of FIU and makes suggestions about what his son might want to work on in practice.
(This isn’t unusual, by the way. Back when former Bob Knight assistant Bob Weltlich coached FIU in the 1990s, at least once he had Knight, still at Indiana University, watch game tapes and give his analysis.)
Pitino Sr. will occasionally text an FIU player he knows. He said he tries to be “involved with FIU basketball without overstepping any boundaries.”
Pitino Jr. said, “He’s been really, really supportive. He’s been great. I want him to be very very involved. He’s got so much knowledge.”
And Pitino Sr.’s a father. He called FIU’s 92-89 win against Stetson, “the most nerve-wracking game” and described a heart-pounding experience while sitting in the stands that he contrasted with the inner calm he feels on the bench during big games he’s coached.
Thursday, though, both coaches will have a different kind of big game.
“Once the ball goes up, it’s not father vs. son, but FIU vs. Louisville,” Rick Pitino said.