Richard Pitino had two options. He could remain part of his father’s coaching staff at Louisville and aim at returning to the Final Four next season, or take over a program that hasn’t posted a winning record since he was a teenager.
And Rick Pitino’s son apparently thinks it’s time to start making his own name.
He signed a five-year contract with Florida International on Monday, agreeing to be paid $250,000 annually in base salary – less than he was making at Louisville, but a deal that allows the 29-year-old to lead a program for the first time.
”I may be young,” Richard Pitino said, ”but I’m not inexperienced.”
Monday’s announcement came with far less pomp and circumstance than the last FIU basketball coaching move. Almost three years to the day earlier, FIU introduced Isiah Thomas as its coach, touting the Basketball Hall of Fame player as the one who would turn the program around. Thomas was fired after going 26-65, although some of his players insisted he deserved one more year.
Pete Garcia, FIU’s director of sports and entertainment, wouldn’t discuss specifics Monday regarding why Thomas was fired, even though at least one member of Thomas’ former staff attended the news conference hoping to get an answer. Garcia simply said he was appreciative of Thomas’ efforts, and that Monday was a day for the Panthers to look ahead, not back.
”I feel very strongly he’s going to continue to build this program and take us to new levels,” Garcia said, nodding toward Pitino.
FIU was 8-21 past season. Its last winning record – all of 16-14 – came in 1999-2000. The Panthers are 112-243 since.
Pitino knows the numbers, and is undeterred.
”It may not always be pretty. It may not always be easy,” Pitino said. ”But we’re going to get it done.”
In Louisville, Rick Pitino – who was 25 when he accepted his first chance to be a head coach – said it was difficult to see his son leave.
”I’m delighted for Richard,” Rick Pitino said. ”He has done great things for us here at Louisville. He has had a big impact on our program. Personally, I am going to miss him. Professionally, we are going to miss having him on our bench.”
Richard Pitino was introduced to the FIU community in a suite over one of the baselines of the basketball arena. A few minutes before his arrival, about a half-dozen members of Pitino’s new team were working out on the court. Some still had not met Pitino. They learned of his hiring by media reports Sunday, but were unaware that he was about to speak about 100 feet away from where they were shooting.
Pitino’s first job will be to convince some of those players to stay. An unknown number have already asked to be released from their scholarships, all being declined so far.
”It’s hard for me to tell you how I can get them to stay,” Pitino said. ”Some guys, it’ll be a good fit. Some, it may not be a good fit. At the end of the day, that’s my job, to figure out what they want and if I can provide that. And I know it’s going to be a fun ride for them. We’ve just got to get to know each other and feel comfortable with each other.”
Before becoming the associate head coach under his father, Richard Pitino was a Louisville assistant from 2007 through 2009 and also worked at Duquesne, Northeastern and the College of Charleston. He spent the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons under Billy Donovan – a Rick Pitino protege – at Florida, and the Gators’ coach also raved about FIU’s hire.
”It is great to have Richard back in the state of Florida,” Donovan said. ”FIU has hired a tireless worker and an excellent recruiter to build their program.”
A hectic next few days await at FIU for Pitino, who said he won’t have the time to return to Louisville and attend a celebration for this season’s Final Four team on Tuesday. There’s a recruiting class to complete – some commitments have said they will now look elsewhere – as well as players to get to know and a staff to complete.
There’s also some scheduling work ahead as well. Pitino said his father texted on Monday, almost daring the Panthers to play a team that will likely be among everyone’s preseason top five teams next season.
”He said, `I never got to spank you as a child. Would you like to get a spanking this year?”’ Richard Pitino said. ”I told him, `Bring it on. I’d love to play you.’ Hopefully we can work something out.”
The younger Pitino sounds incredibly similar to his father, and has some of the same features – although he bristled at that particular comparison.
”The only thing that bothers me is that you just said I look like a 59-year-old man,” Richard Pitino said, as the room broke into laughter. ”I’m extremely, extremely proud to be his son. I’ve been very, very lucky. There’s been a rare occasion where it may be a burden. But 99 percent of the time, I’m extremely lucky, extremely fortunate. I wouldn’t trade him for any other dad in the world.”