Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Richard Pitino grew up in the first family of Kentucky basketball.
As an honorary prince of the Big Blue Nation, he watched the town of Lexington go crazy over the Wildcats team his father – Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino – led from 1989 to 1997.
In six postseason campaigns, Richard saw his dad’s team win at least one NCAA Tournament game each year, go to five Elite Eights, three Final Fours and two national championship games, winning it all in 1996.
He knows what can happen when a community – and a fan base – are the foundation of a program.
So when University of New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nuñez spoke with him directly for the first time about the Lobos coaching vacancy Friday – the day after Pitino’s Minnesota Gophers’ season ended with a loss in the Big Ten Tournament – there was no sales pitch needed.
“I’ve always dreamed of being at a basketball-crazed place, you know?” Pitino told the Journal on Tuesday in a telephone interview from Minneapolis. “I mean, just growing up at the University of Kentucky and just knowing what a fan base and a home court advantage can do – and tradition and history.
“So it definitely was something that I was excited about. I was able to meet with those guys (Nuñez and UNM deputy AD David Williams for an interview on Saturday in Chicago). I just wanted it badly. So grateful that I was offered it.”
Earlier Tuesday, Pitino had said yes to UNM’s offer. He had been let go late Monday at Minnesota after eight seasons as head coach.
And so the marriage begins between the 38-year-old coach and Lobo basketball.
“It’s an exciting day for Lobo basketball,” Nuñez said. “We have somebody who I’m very excited about. Richard Pitino being our next men’s basketball coach – I can’t speak more about not just his successes (on the court) but who he is as a person, his character, his integrity, everything.”
Pitino replaces Paul Weir, who came to a separation agreement with UNM on Feb. 26 after four seasons, the last one historically bad for the Lobos. They finished last in the 11-team Mountain West Conference – the first time the program finished alone in last place in any conference in more than 60 years.
UNM did not release financial terms of Pitino’s contract on Tuesday, but the length will be six years.
It is the same length as the contract given Weir, who made $775,000 last season and will receive a $490,000 buyout from UNM. The university is also on the hook for an additional $100,000 still owed to New Mexico State University, the in-state rival UNM plucked Weir from in 2017.
Also not yet known are the final buyout terms Pitino will get from Minnesota, which was contractually obligated to pay him $1.75 million if fired, though that amount was to be adjusted if Pitino found a comparable job.
Pitino has a career record of 159-137 – 18-14 in one season at Florida International and 141-123 at Minnesota. He led the team to one NIT championship and two NCAA Tournament appearances during an eight-year stint in one of the top conferences in the country.
This season, Pitino’s Gophers were ranked as high as No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 and had wins against four teams that have top four seeds in this week’s NCAA Tournament – No. 1 Michigan, No. 2 Iowa, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Purdue – all before two stars were injured late in the season. Minnesota lost its final seven regular-season games and 10 of its final 13 games overall.
“Looking at myself, you know, we had to have better depth, we had to have guys on the bench who were more ready to go…,” Pitino said. “The one thing I think everybody will learn about me, I’ll never make an excuse. I’ll never do that. I’ll take full ownership of it.”
That personal ownership, Nuñez said, was a big factor in the decision to hire Pitino.
So too, Nuñez acknowledged, were people in the search process who spoke highly of the coach.
Interest in the job
Nuñez played college basketball for Billy Donovan at Florida, where Donovan won back-to-back national titles. He is now a successful NBA coach with the Chicago Bulls.
Donovan is also a close family friend of the Pitinos, having played for and coached with Rick Pitino and having had Richard Pitino on his staff in the past.
But Nuñez emphasized that Donovan was only one of many he reached out to for information on Pitino before deciding late Monday to extend the job offer.
“We had some unbelievable coaches – quality individuals, high character,” Nuñez said.
“This was a hard decision because at the end of the day, it’s an important one. And I need to know that this person is going to be the right person. It wasn’t as comfortable as I would have liked it to be, but at the end of the day, I feel great because we did our due diligence.”
As for the Donovan influence, and that large shadow the Pitino name brings with it, the Lobos’ new coach doesn’t deny that on the court you’ll see the influences of both. But, he said, he is his own man.
“One of the best decisions I ever made was when I was at the University of Louisville (working on his dad’s staff), I decided to go be an assistant coach for Billy Donovan (at Florida),” Richard Pitino said.
“And I got out of my comfort zone. You know, it was not an easy decision. And it was the greatest thing I ever did because I saw a guy in Billy Donovan who I thought was exactly like my father. And (then I learned) he was totally different – not necessarily in what it is that they were trying to do. They both had an unbelievable desire to win and to do things on and off the court the right way, but it just showed me that I can be myself.”
Current Lobo assistant Dan McHale, the only staffer with a multiyear contract that runs beyond this season, was a Pitino assistant at Minnesota from 2013 through 2015. Fellow UNM assistant Scott Padgett was recruited to play for Kentucky by Rick Pitino and has also coached in the past as part of a large Pitino coaching tree.
The new head coach, however, said he hasn’t made any staffing or player decisions for next season.
For now, Pitino and Nuñez agree the focus is squarely on rebuilding the program, which hasn’t been to the postseason in seven years.
“This is not just about winning games,” Nuñez said. “This is about winning championships, and doing it the right way.”
Been here before?
The formula has worked before in these parts.
In February 2007, with a few weeks left in a season of dwindling fan support, UNM announced the firing of Ritchie McKay but allowed him to coach the rest of the season.
That year the Lobos lost in the play-in round of the Mountain West tournament after a last-place finish.
After that season, the university turned to a young Big Ten coach with a recognizable name in Steve Alford.
Alford was becoming unpopular after eight seasons at his previous job at Iowa, only to find a soft landing spot at UNM.
He was 43 when UNM hired him, but he had three NCAA Tournament appearances with Iowa. Pitino had two with Minnesota.
Both Alford and Pitino had losing Big Ten records in their eight seasons there, but winning records overall.
College: B.A. in history (2005) from Providence, where he was basketball student manager and began his coaching career.
Florida International (18-14, 1 year, 2012-13)
Minnesota (141-123, 54-96 in the Big Ten, eight years, 2013-21)
UNM contract: Terms not released, other than it will be a six-year deal.
Wife: Jill Pitino
Children: Daughters Ava and Zoe, and son Jack