Jack Pitino took the news hard.
A lot of people, after all, were counting on him.
Last Saturday morning, when the 7-year-old’s dad – first-year University of New Mexico basketball coach Richard Pitino – tested positive for COVID-19, Jack had one question.
Would that night’s Lobo game in the Pit vs. Utah State be able to go on if Jack wasn’t there?
“When we told my son Richard had COVID, he didn’t care about Richard. He didn’t ask how he felt. ‘I can’t go to the game?'” Jill Pitino, Jack’s mom and Richard’s wife, recalls of the moment they broke the news to their three children, Jack and sisters Ava and Zoe.
“He didn’t say, ‘Dad, how do you feel? Dad, are you OK?’ He was so furious. … He was very concerned about who was taking over (for him as a ball boy) and if there were enough people.”
The game did go on, but without a Pitino courtside – Richard on the team’s bench or Jack wiping up sweat off the floor or chasing down basketballs during warmups.
As COVID-19 cases and new variants of the virus continue to surge in New Mexico and around the world with dire consequences on people’s lives, its impact on college basketball is but a blip on the radar for most.
But just because it’s a game doesn’t mean there aren’t some special, unique levels of coaching misery caused by having an unexpected COVID interruption thrown into your life.
Both of New Mexico’s Division I men’s basketball coaches – Pitino at UNM and Chris Jans at New Mexico State – now have experienced missing two of their team’s games this season, instead leaving them to try to follow along from their living rooms.
Pitino has missed the last two. Jans missed the eventful Nov. 30 home loss to UNM and one other.
Both coaches said those were miserable nights of feeling helpless for the teams they’re normally tasked with guiding. Neither is especially eager to relive those experiences.
So we went to their wives.
Both coaches tried hard to keep the game-day routine as normal as they could, even if they weren’t around any players, assistant coaches and many miles from the gyms their teams were playing in.
Both kept in constant contact by phone – Facetime video calls and tons of text messages – with assistant coaches and players throughout the day.
Jans tried to take the same game-day afternoon nap as always. For Richard Pitino, the usual afternoon walk turned into a drive so he wouldn’t run into any neighbors.
Both tried to eat at the same time, watch whatever game film they usually would have on their computers, and both even got dressed for the occasion.
“He came out right before the game, he had his game outfit on like they all wear. You know, the same colors and all that,” said Jill Pitino. The UNM coaching staff this season has gone away from wearing suits and, like other teams, wear matching team gear like Lobo pullovers on the bench.
“He did that for both games, and I laughed at him the first time, but then I was like, ‘Well, I guess it makes sense.’ So he was there, in his outfit, but he paced. He was up. He was down. He would jot down notes and talk to the TV.”
And in Las Cruces, did Jans, whose Aggies coaching staff has stuck with suit-wearing this season, go all out and do the same while watching from his living room?
“He talked about it, but he did not. He definitely had his Aggie gear on, as did I,” Sheri Jans said.
Come game time, Chris and Sheri Jans, whose kids are in their 20s and not at home, watched together in their living room.
The Pitinos’ daughters weren’t entirely interested when the family watched the Utah State game last Saturday, but mom, dad, and Jack watched – Jack asking lots of questions.
Tuesday’s late start at UNLV meant the kids were in bed – probably a good thing for dad without the constant commentary from his son, especially as the 7-9 Lobos played one of their worst games this season.
‘A total debacle’
For Richard Pitino, he missed the past two games – a home loss in overtime to Utah State and a blowout 85-56 loss to UNLV on Tuesday during which the television broadcast didn’t start airing the game for nearly 10 minutes after it tipped off.
“It was funny, and it was hard (to watch) just because coaches, they need control,” said Jill Pitino. “And he always jokes with me that I can’t handle the pressure. I’m known to leave and pace during tough games and stuff like that, and I think it’s because you have to sit there and watch the games, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Well, he was in that moment of pacing around the house. He’s staring at the game on TV and he can’t really, other than speaking to the team before and taking notes, there’s nothing he can really do.”
If that’s bad, consider that after watching an online stream of his 13-2 team’s (pending its result Thursday vs. Tarleton State) blowout win over Division II New Mexico Highlands on Nov. 24, Chris Jans’ second game away was the Nov. 30 rivalry game against the Lobos – a 101-94 loss in the Pan American Center on a night that a power failure five minutes into the action led to the online video stream going out for the night.
“So many dynamics to that game made it so difficult for him,” said Sheri Jans. “You know, I think it became kind of a physical game and there were a lot of technicals called and just not being able to see what was happening with all that – we were just getting the PG version, if you will, on the radio.
“It was just like, ‘Could this be more of a debacle?’ I mean, that’s how it we describe the UNM game, for sure … a total debacle.”
Sheri Jans took pictures of her husband that night, figuring the uniqueness of what was going on was worth preserving. The images grew more depressing after the video feed died and the game played out.
Thursday, she shared the images of that Nov. 30 night with the Journal, but admitted her husband hadn’t even seen them yet.
“I think we both sort of tried to block those games out of our memory,” she said.