Senior Writer

Pitino vs. Donovan special and awkward at same time


PHOENIX -- In the bowels of the US Airways Center, Richard Pitino defined a defining moment in this NCAA tournament.

Rick Pitino vs. Billy Donovan in Saturday's West Regional final is going to be written from so many angles it's going to need a protractor. For Richard Pitino -- yes, you can call him Rick too -- Louisville vs. Florida is his former babysitter coaching against his dad.

"I don't know if 'special' is the word," said Louisville's 29-year-old assistant. Then he paused to find it.


There's a lot of awkward floating around the building. Everywhere you turn there are associations, friendships, brotherhoods. You know the story about Pitino basically giving Donovan a basketball life. From dumpy 190-pound nothing to elite Final Four guard at Providence. From Kentucky grad assistant to back-to-back NCAA titles at Florida.

When Donovan won the first one in 2006, one of the first things he did was call his mentor down from the stands. Pitino cried. There's also a picture somewhere that the Louisville staff blew up and plastered around the office -- three-year-old Richard sitting on Uncle Billy's lap. Everyone had a good laugh.

More on Louisville-Florida
Related links
More college hoops coverage

From 2009-11 Richard worked for Donovan at Florida, then returned to Louisville where he had coached with his dad from 2007-09. Awkward. Those two years in Gainesville roughly coincided with his father's messy extortion trial. That was awkward for a while. too.

"You all have those experiences in life," Rick Pitino said. "I don't know about extortion, but you have bad problems in your life. I got through it and my family helped me get through it."

Richard has recruited a sizable portion of the Gators roster that will try to get the program into its fifth Final Four. He is the spitting image of his father right down to the mannerisms, sarcasm, New York accent and story-telling.

"I don't know how to take that," Richard said.

It's a good thing until actually having to endure Saturday. Richard should be a head coach soon. Think of the glory and the scrutiny. He has come up without a leg up. Richard graduated from Donovan's school, Providence, where he was a student manager for two years. After a year at Duquesne, he joined his father for the first time.

Now, Richard could have a championship ring before age 30. His last name will open a lot of doors. It worked for Donovan. Pitino used his clout to help Billy at both Marshall and Florida.

"Richard has had to work his way up," Donovan said. "I don't think Richard has ever been given anything."

"I never looked at it like my dad having a shadow over me," Richard said. "You look at all the good things that come with it. I was lucky enough to go to Final Fours, to be in all these great arenas. To cut down the nets in '96 [after Kentucky's championship] when I was young."

There will be a lot of jollying, happy talk about student and mentor. But beyond the money quotes and folksy stories doesn't Donovan want to tear out Pitino's throat? That has to be the case. That's how both these guys are built. Donovan may be beholden to Pitino for his livelihood, but he hasn't beaten him. Ever. Six meetings, six losses. This is their first meeting in more than seven years.

"They're both probably the two most competitive people I've met," Richard said. "They both work out uncontrollably. They're obsessed with their workouts. Billy works out like a machine, so does my dad. They both bust balls a lot -- sarcastic New Yorkers."

'Special', then, doesn't begin to describe it. Florida assistant John Pelphrey emerged from a film session Friday afternoon to put things in perspective. The former Kentucky star is loyal to both coaches. He played for Pitino at Kentucky, with Billy as an assistant. That's him being shown now more than ever trying to guard Christian Laettner in the 1992 Duke buzzer-beater.

A bad memory has been turned into a book and a documentary this year on the 20th anniversary of the game.

"I was telling someone today, 'When is this thing's shelf life going to run out?' Pelphrey said. "We've got to be getting close."

Not exactly.

"We make fun of Coach Pel more than anything when he's in the room because he just stood there," against Duke, said Florida guard Bradley Beal.


Think of having to live with some of those same feelings after Saturday.

"You do know that when the games are over, win or lose, there are feelings that you're going to have to deal with," Pelphrey said. "I remember everything about that day. Pressure, intensity, it's kind of seared into us. I can't remember what I had yesterday for dinner but you could remember things like that."

More awkwardness.

Both teams are here on somewhat of a hall pass. Florida, a No. 7 seed, has taken advantage of a favorable draw to play clutch defense at the right time. The Gators' three NCAA opponents have shot a combined 31.5 percent, less than 21 percent from the arc.

Louisville can be agonizing to watch on offense but seven consecutive wins have sprung from a team that finished seventh in the Big East.

"This team, this year, he loves being around them so much," Richard said. "From when I was young and the way he talks about the 1987 [Providence] team, and how happy he was to be around it, I see it in him with this team."

There is as much urgency as friendship. There's no guarantee that neither Pitino, 59, nor Donovan, 46, will ever get to the Final Four again. Not that they aren't able. Richard says neither will be a Jim Boeheim or Jim Calhoun coaching well into their 60s.

"I could see Billy fishing every day and my dad golfing every day and both being very happy doing it," Richard said.

But not yet, not on Saturday. There will be two guarantees. While nets are being cut down, friendships will endure but hearts will also have to mend.

That's special and awkward.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

Biggest Stories

CBSSports Facebook Google Plus
Conversation powered by Livefyre


Most Popular