Rick Pitino’s Massive Coaching Tree Adds Another Branch As Richard Becomes FIU’s Head CoachPosted by EJacoby on April 17th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
Florida International has never made any meaningful noise on the basketball court (one NCAA Tournament appearance in school history), yet the Golden Panthers continue to create plenty of buzz off of it. Over the weekend it was announced that Richard Pitino, the 29-year-old son of famed Louisville coach Rick Pitino, would be taking over as head coach at FIU. Richard Pitino was a Louisville assistant and replaces the recently fired Isiah Thomas, who of course is one of the NBA’s all-time great players as well as a former head coach and executive at the highest level in the NBA. Thomas’ buzzworthy hire did not equate to any success in three years with the program (26-65 record) so FIU will now give it a second shot with another big name. Pitino immediately becomes one of the youngest head coaches in Division I, taking up after his legendary father who got his start at Boston University at just 26 years old. Richard is just one of many Pitino assistants that have moved on to become head coaches, as we take a look at how widespread and successful the Rick Pitino coaching tree has become over the years.
We start all the way back in 1985 with Pitino’s head coaching gig at Providence, the first of three schools he would eventually take to a Final Four. The 1987 Friars that advanced to the Final Four included three young assistants by the names of Stu Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, and Herb Sendek. Jackson went on to become a head coach at Wisconsin and later for the New York Knicks, and he is now the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the NBA, one of the highest executive positions in the sport. Van Gundy, of course, also went on to become an NBA guy, coaching both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. Sendek, meanwhile, has become a longtime college coach with NC State and Arizona State, where he remains today. Sendek himself has helped groom some tremendous head coaches like Thad Matta, John Groce, Chris Mack, and Sean Miller. In addition to all of the coaches that sprung from the Providence years, Pitino also coached Billy Donovan, the starting point guard for the Friars at the time. Donovan has since gone on to win two National Championships for Florida with assistants-turned-coaches Anthony Grant and Shaka Smart, among others. Pitino’s three years at Providence produced an extensive history of coaching talent, and we are just getting started.
As head coach at Kentucky from 1989-97, the Pitino coaching tree blossomed even more. Prior to winning the National Championship in 1996, Kentucky’s assistant coaches under Pitino included three big names in Ralph Willard, Jim O’Brien, and Tubby Smith. Willard went on to coach at Western Kentucky, Holy Cross, and Pittsburgh, where he helped teach Tom Crean and Buzz Williams, among others. O’Brien eventually became an NBA head coach for the Boston Celtics (replacing Pitino in 2001), Philadelphia 76ers, and Indiana Pacers. Perhaps the most successful of all from this group is Tubby Smith, who took over for Pitino at UK in 1997 where he brought home the 1998 National Championship. He stayed with the Big Blue Nation until 2007 and has since moved on to Minnesota. Three players from the 1992 Unforgettables team also eventually became college head coaches thanks to the tutelage of Pitino. Travis Ford is the head coach at Oklahoma State while Sean Woods coaches Mississippi Valley State; both have been there since 2008. John Pelphrey earned his coaching chops under Donovan at Florida, and later went on to become the head man at South Alabama and Arkansas before finding his way back on to Donovan’s staff at Florida last year.
The Pitino Tree has continued at Louisville since 2001, where the current 59-year-old coach still shows noticeable enthusiasm that could mean plenty more years of opportunity to groom other young head coaches. Over the past 11 years, Pitino has helped develop assistants Reggie Theus, Mick Cronin, and now Richard Pitino into eventual head coaches. Theus coached for New Mexico State and the Sacramento Kings while Cronin is one of the top up-and-coming coaches in college basketball as the leader of Cincinnati. It has come full circle now with Pitino’s son, Richard, taking the job at FIU at just 29 years old, seeking to continue this legendary coaching tree with the same family name. ”You know I’m delighted, but I’m going miss him terribly,” says Rick about his son’s hire. ”I think one of the great things in 35 years of coaching was spending three years with him. Watch him grow as a basketball coach, and you sort of don’t want it to end.”
Rick Pitino’s legacy is filled with highlights that will soon qualify him for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Most noteworthy is his 1996 National Championship with the Kentucky “Untouchables,” one of three different schools he has brought to a Final Four. Not everything on his resume is positive, though, as he endured an unsuccessful run in the NBA as coach of the Boston Celtics. He’s also had the occasional negative off-the-court story, such as 2009’s sex scandal involving a woman who was eventually found guilty of extortion surrounding that scandal. But on the court in college basketball, few coaches have ever been as successful as Pitino. His coaching tree has many more branches than some of his contemporaries such as Jim Calhoun, Tom Izzo, and Mike Krzyzewski. While those three have enjoyed illustrious careers at primarily one program, we cannot fault Pitino for making so many stops along his journey. They are all going to the Hall of Fame in the end. Every coach runs things differently, and Rick Pitino has happened to parlay his success with a widespread coaching tree that few contemporaries will ever be able to match. Richard Pitino’s hiring at FIU gave us a great time to reflect on his father’s tremendous success.