Pitino father, son gear up for familial face-off

Rick Pitino’s wife has put the University of Louisville basketball coach on notice for Wednesday night’s game against son Richard and Florida International University.

“She’s very much torn, and she’s telling me, ‘You can’t embarrass your son, whatever you do,’ ” said Rick Pitino, father of FIU’s rookie coach. “I said, ‘I don’t embarrass a stranger. I play my walk-ons if we’re up. I play everybody. We never embarrass anybody.’ ”

Sorry, Rick. Not good enough.

“She said, ‘But this is your son! This is your son!’ I said, ‘It’s FIU, Joanne! It’s FIU!’ ” Pitino said. “She said, ‘No, it’s not FIU. You just stay in that office if he’s embarrassed slightly. Don’t bother coming home.’”

Clearly, this is an interesting, if not entertaining, week for the Pitinos. Father and son will oppose each other when fifth-ranked Louisville (9-1) plays host to FIU (3-4) at the KFC Yum! Center on Wednesday.

Richard’s family (wife and daughter) will be staying with Rick and Joanne. The Pitino clan will go out for a pregame meal Tuesday night. And, according to Rick, Joanne Pitino probably will sit behind the FIU bench.

“She’s rooting all the way for Richard, I can tell you that,” Rick said.

Richard wasn’t so sure.

“My mom’s probably rooting for Louisville to win by one,” Richard said. “She’s probably thinking, ‘If we keep it close, then my son doesn’t get blown out and the Cardinals don’t lose. Once they play, I leave and still have to go home with him.’”

Richard Pitino, 30, called Louisville home as Cardinals associate head coach before accepting the head job at FIU in April.

Soon thereafter, the two schools agreed to play a three-year series, the first two meetings at Louisville and the third at FIU. At the time of the announcement, Rick Pitino kidded by saying he was looking forward to the series because he hadn’t spanked Richard enough as a kid.

But things have changed, and not just because of spousal pressure.

“When he said that, obviously, he was messing around with me, but I think it’s a little different now, to be honest,” Richard said. “He has become so involved in our program. When we play a game, he’ll watch the film, he’ll chart it, he’ll let me know what he thinks about what we need to do to get better.”

On a recent recruiting trip to Florida, Rick Pitino attended FIU’s 82-79 victory at Stetson on Dec. 9.

“I’ve been coaching 35 years and I never really get anxiety before a game. But before that game and during the game, I was having almost heart palpitations,” Rick said. “I had so much anxiety watching him and hoping he would win.

“Someday, I was planning on retiring and going to see his games — I don’t think I could do it. My anxiety level . . . blood pressure . . . everything was up so high. When they finally won the game, I was so relieved.”

Born into a basketball family, Richard Pitino, his three brothers and one sister all were discouraged from going into big-time coaching by their famous father.

“I told them, ‘This is not a great life for a family. You’re away quite a bit.’ So, I tried to discourage all of them,” Rick said. “Only Richard didn’t listen to me.”

Richard Pitino began his coaching career at a nearby high school team while attending Providence College. He also was a Friars manager under then-coach Tim Welsh, before assisting at the College of Charleston, Northeastern and Duquesne. He then joined his father at Louisville.

Richard left Louisville in 2009 to work two seasons for Billy Donovan at Florida.

“Best thing I ever did,” Richard said. “I’ve seen so much of how my dad runs things, and it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but he’s my dad, and I’m me. I can’t try to impersonate him because I’m not him.”

Donovan has been close to the Pitinos since he played for Rick at Providence, where he helped lead the Friars to the 1987 Final Four.

“I told Richard, ‘If you go into this profession, take Billy Donovan’s work ethic, his devotion to his family, his kids . . . everything about him, and emulate that,’ ” Rick said. “I told him that as a young kid, and he has done that. I’m very proud of him.”

As when he went into coaching, Richard chose not to listen to his dad by deciding to leave for FIU and his first head-coaching job. Rick thought a few more years assisting a talented Cardinals team would be better both professionally and personally.

“I could have stayed; I could have waited longer — we had a great team coming back at Louisville — but I loved the opportunity presented me at FIU,” Richard said. “I believed in it. I thought it was a job where I could win and build something special there.

“It wasn’t going to be a place where I’d want to win and just try and get out. I wanted to be at a place where I thought I could be there 10, 20 years if they’ll have me and I could be happy there and build the program the right way.”

Staying in one place for a long time hasn’t always been a Pitino family trait. Now in his 11th year at Louisville, Rick’s previous longest stint was eight years at Kentucky. But stops at Hawaii, Syracuse, Boston University, Providence, the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics were much shorter.

To build a quality program at FIU, Richard Pitino will have to recruit talented players to the Sun Belt Conference. He has relied heavily on junior-college transfers to join five returning letter-winners and no starters in Year No. 1.

“I think the biggest thing that you battle is, everybody wants to go play at the highest, highest level,” Richard said. “Everybody thinks they should be going to (North) Carolina, Louisville, Duke, UCLA. So now, for the kids that don’t go to those schools, you have to show them that we’re going to play at a very high level.

“We’re going to run this program just like those guys do, and we’re going to try and build something very special.”

Owning the Pitino name already has helped in recruiting.

“The major thing was him coming off a Final Four appearance and him having the recipe for winning, that was a big thing I wanted to do. Coming in, only having only two years left, I wanted to win right away,” said junior guard Malik Smith, who transferred from Jacksonville (Texas) College.

Junior forward Tymell Murphy transferred from South Plains (Texas) College.

“I felt that he was gonna to be one of those coaches that not talk about it but actually make things happen,” Murphy said. “I had looked up the places he had been, and it seemed like he had been around a lot of winning programs.“

After initially trying to dissuade his son from moving to Miami, Rick has been a priceless fountain of knowledge for Richard.

“It’s funny, we probably talk more now than when I was an assistant for him because he wants us to be so successful, he wants to be involved and be a part of it,” Richard said. “He told me, ‘Learn from all my mistakes of just being impatient and trying to make impulse decisions because it’s not going to happen overnight.’

“Being his son has opened up a lot of doors and has made me extremely, extremely fortunate, and I embrace it. I’m extremely grateful for it. With that being said, there comes a lot of negatives, too. I just try to focus on the task at hand.”

Which brings us back to the game at Louisville. Unlike for every other opponent on the FIU schedule, Richard knows he’ll be down one loyal supporter.

“When the ball goes up, he’ll do everything to beat the University of Louisville and we’ll do everything to beat Florida International,” Rick said. “We’re supposed to win the game, so he’s not going to have a lot of pressure.

“But once it’s thrown up, it won’t be father and son anymore. He’s been taught that way. You go for the kill, and he will.”