MIAMI (AP) — Richard Pitino second-guesses himself after every game. He anguishes over the mistakes he makes on the Florida International sideline, then reviews them repeatedly in an effort to get better.
Fortunately for the Panthers, their first-year coach seems to be making plenty of right decisions.
For the first time in 13 seasons, FIU might be on the way to a winning record. The Panthers are 13-10 heading into a Sun Belt Conference game at North Texas on Saturday night.
Sitting three games over .500 might not sound all that impressive, but keep this in mind: The last time FIU won more than 13 games was 1999-2000, which also was the last season in which the Panthers didn’t finish with a losing mark.
And at this rate, Rick Pitino’s son will soon be making his own name on the sideline.
“We start two walk-ons; we really only play five scholarship guys and I think the lesson to be learned is, in Year 1, you’ve got to have great kids,” Richard Pitino said. “And these guys are great kids. They do whatever we ask. They give unbelievable effort. They’ve been fun for me because I’m far from the coach that I need to be, so I’m able to make my mistakes with them and learn from them, and they’re able to learn from me as well.”
Pitino was hired last year after the Panthers fired Hall of Fame player Isiah Thomas, who went 26-65 in his three seasons at the school. Some turmoil followed that move, with players upset over the firing, a few even protesting it to university administrators, and the roster went into a complete state of flux with names coming and going.
When Pitino sat down to get ready for his rookie season at FIU, he simply said, “I don’t know what we have.”
He’s quickly finding out what he has, and he’s liking what he’s seeing.
Since the start of January, the Panthers are 9-3. Entering Friday’s schedule, only nine teams in the country have won more games in that span than the Panthers, who were widely picked to finish last in their half of the Sun Belt entering the season but are carrying an 8-6 mark in conference play.
“It feels so good, man,” said FIU forward Tymell Murphy. “When I got here in July, people weren’t really high on the basketball team. They knew we’d had some down years, for a long time. The feeling now walking around campus, they know who we are. They know we’re playing hard; they say hello, and I really appreciate that.”
By Pitino’s own estimation, when FIU opened the season, about 100 people were in the seats. More than 1,500 were there Thursday night when the Panthers easily beat archrival Florida Atlantic.
It’s a start.
“By no means have we arrived, but now we’ve got a good environment,” Pitino said. “So now these guys have seen and tasted success and they want more. And when you start from scratch, like we did, they see what happens when you work hard. They’re reaping all the rewards from it and all the benefits from it.”
Pitino’s two biggest mentors are his father — the famed Louisville coach, whose sideline mannerisms are almost perfectly matched now by his son — and Florida coach Billy Donovan, under whom Richard Pitino formerly worked.
FIU’s system is simple: It’s Florida’s offense and Louisville’s defense. OK, so FIU doesn’t have anywhere near the level of talent that you’ll find on the Cardinals and Gators rosters. But what the 30-year-old Richard Pitino is doing is teaching a proven way to win, and his players are taking to it more quickly than anyone expected.
“I love playing for Coach P,” said Murphy, who was a standout on a 36-0 junior-college team last season. “His style of play fits my game so well, that I have no choice but to love the way he coaches and his enthusiasm and his love for the game. Sometimes he gets on me, and it motivates me. I want that, a coach who makes you play hard and gets on you and makes you better when you’re not playing hard.”
Richard Pitino calls his father every day — Rick Pitino usually watches games online, and by the time his kid gets to check his phone, a postgame critique is waiting. And he talks to Donovan nearly as often.
“The great thing about Billy and my dad, they’re always willing to give me advice,” Pitino said. “They understand where I’m at. I call Billy every single day, almost like I call my dad, and I’m so appreciative that they give the time to try to teach me. It’s so exciting. For me, I can’t try to be Billy Donovan, I can’t try to be Rick Pitino. I’ve got to be my own man and play my own style, and it’s been fun trying to figure it out.”
Given the record, he might be closer to figuring things out than he would have expected, 23 games into his career as a head coach.
“I think we’re a little ahead of schedule from where I thought we’d be,” Pitino said. “But these guys have shown a lot of heart. It’s been fun.”