PHOENIX — Not long after the unveiling of the NCAA tournament bracket, Louisville assistant coach Richard Pitino sent a text to Florida coach Billy Donovan.
"I said, 'Let's see each other in the Elite Eight,'" Pitino said. "I was half-joking when I sent it, but now we're here."
If the dominant storyline of Saturday's West Regional final is the mentor-protégé duel between Donovan and Louisville coach Rick Pitino, then an intriguing sidebar is the 29-year-old assistant caught in the middle. Richard Pitino looked up to his father and Donovan growing up, worked for both as an assistant coach the past few years and calls them the two most influential men in his life.
Although Richard inherited his father's facial features, Long Island accent and snappy sense of humor, everyone who knows him insists it's actually Donovan with whom he has most in common as a coach. Richard's reputation as a tireless recruiter and detail-oriented scout is consistent with both Donovan and his father, but his laid-back everyman's personality and ability to relate well with players is more reminiscent of a younger version of the Florida coach.
"Richard is not like me at all when I was his age. He's exactly like Billy," Rick Pitino said. "His mannerisms are a lot like Billy. He loves offense like Billy loves offense. He's a great scout, a great preparer of game plans, like Billy was. He's very humble, like Billy was. He laughs like Billy. You know, like Billy told my wife, 'I really miss having fun with Richard.' He likes to have a lot of fun. He's very close with the players, like Billy was."
It's no surprise Donovan was an influence for Richard Pitino considering how highly Rick regards his former player.
Donovan won the elder Pitino's respect with his unmatched work ethic as a player, transforming from a doughy reserve point guard to an all-American who led an unlikely Providence run to the 1987 Final Four. To this day, the two trade calls and texts during the season, go golfing or out to dinner in the offseason and exchange Christmas gifts every December.
When Donovan was a graduate assistant and assistant coach under the elder Pitino at Kentucky, he used to babysit for Richard whenever his parents went out of town. And even after Donovan struck out on his own as a head coach at first Marshall and then Florida, Rick Pitino would always share stories with Richard about one of his favorite former players.
"Growing up, I always heard, 'Billy this or Billy that,'" Richard said with a smile. "My father, my mother, they worship Billy. They treat him like their son. If there's any person they'd want me to learn from, it would be Billy Donovan."
Considering the countless hours Richard spent around basketball growing up and the influence both Donovan and his father had on him, it was hardly shocking when he too decided during college that he wanted to become a coach. As a student at Providence, Richard worked as a team manager under coach Tim Welsh and also as an assistant coach at nearby St. Andrew's School in Barrington, R.I.
Maybe the only person who wasn't thrilled with Richard's chosen career path was Rick Pitino, who worried about his son following in his footsteps. The elder Pitino's experiences with the Boston and New York media as coach of the Celtics and Knicks made him worry whether Richard would be tough enough to endure the criticism that comes with such a high-profile gig.
"I tried to talk all my children out of it, I really did," Rick Pitino said. "Richard said, 'It's no problem, I'm totally ready for it.' And he is ready for it. I hope some day he turns out like a Billy Donovan. That would be awesome. "
To help ensure that happens, the elder Pitino encouraged Richard to leave Louisville in 2009 for a similar assistant coaching gig under Donovan at Florida.
Richard spent two years under Donovan before returning to Louisville almost out of necessity last spring when all three of his father's assistant coaches took other jobs. Even though he wasn't in Gainesville very long, Richard thinks he benefited from learning under a coach besides his father.
"What I learned most from Billy is work ethic," Richard said. "A lot of times assistant coaches are the first ones in the office. He beat us into the office almost every day. He works every second of every day and doesn't waste a minute of it. It doesn't matter if it's in June or the middle of the season. He's going to put every ounce of effort into his program to make it better. That's something where I just watched him and said, 'Holy goodness, I can't let my boss outwork me.'"
Richard's coached the majority of Florida's team the previous two years and helped recruit this year's freshmen, so his familiarity with the Gators should be a coup for Louisville entering Saturday's Elite Eight matchup. He downplayed the advantage because he only has one day to instill that knowledge in Louisville's players, but Florida guard Kenny Boynton acknowledged Richard will be calling out the Gators' plays or their tendencies during the game.
"He was around us two years straight and knows everyone's games, so he's going to tell them everything about us," Boynton said. "Just because you know what's coming doesn't mean you can stop it, but they'll definitely know everything that's coming."
With all the ties between Donovan and the Pitinos, Richard was asked if Louisville and Florida meeting for a berth in the Final Four was special for his family.
"I don't know if 'special' is the word," he responded. "'Awkward,' maybe? I'll say this, if there's anyone in the world I'd want to lose to, it would be Billy Donovan."
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