The newly-minted Big Ten Coach of the Year will have his hands full tomorrow.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino will lead his team into the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for a rematch with Michigan.
The last time the two teams met, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson sent the game into overtime with a last-second three to tie the game, but the Wolverines couldn’t come through in the extra period, falling to the Golden Gophers, 83-78.
At the time, it was Minnesota’s 20th win of the season, giving the Golden Gophers 12 more wins than they had finished with last year.
That turnaround merited Pitino the accolade, and he’s looking to prove more when Minnesota faces off with Michigan on Saturday with a spot in the Big Ten Tournament final on the line.
Before the season, the Daily sat down with Pitino at Big Ten Media Day to discuss his rapid rise in the coaching world, lessons he’s learned along the way and where he thinks Minnesota can be better in the coming years:
The Michigan Daily: You’ve gone from being a young assistant coach to a coach of a major conference team rather quickly. What’s it been like to rise through the coaching ranks like you have?
Richard Pitino: When I was at (Florida International), not a whole lot of people paid attention, and I actually thought that was a lot of fun. You learn and you grow while no one’s looking. It’s a lot different having experiences when eyeballs are on you. But you have to find a way to do it, and you have to find a way to grow up fast. For me, I’m sitting here in year four as a Big Ten head coach. That’s kind of crazy because I’m 34 years. But it’s been a lot of great experiences and a lot of fun experiences.
TMD: Have you tried to bring that fun you were having at Florida International and instill it in the culture at Minnesota?
RP: You really try to, but it’s different when you have fan bases and media. That pressure is raised. You do your best to block it out, quiet the noise and understand you have to coach your team. There are a lot of things at this level that are out of your control and you can’t let it eat you up.
TMD: Now that you’re in your fourth year at Minnesota, do you think you’ve gotten over the learning curve adjusting to a conference like the Big Ten?
RP: I think you’re always learning. Whether you’re the oldest coach or the youngest coach in the league, you’re always trying to get better. I think that’s where coaches are unique. There are so many decisions that you make as a coach where there’s a risk involved. You’re always growing, and if you’re not, then you’re making a mistake.
TMD: Where do you think you’ve grown the most in the past four years?
RP: I guess it’s understanding that a lot is out of your control. You can’t beat yourself up if something out of your control happens. Whether it’s a missed free throw or whatever that may be. You have to put your head on a pillow at night and accept the fact that you’ve done the best you can. I think that, after three years of doing this, I can say I’m pretty confident in that.
TMD: Tom Crean said earlier today he thought your team is poised to have a breakout year. What comes to your mind when one of your colleagues praises you and maybe puts the pressure on you?
RP: I’m grateful. One of the things I love about this conference is the really good coaches have given me a lot of time, a lot of respect when I’ve asked for it. Nobody ever big times anyone else in this conference. I think (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo really sets the standard for that. He’s a coach’s coach, and everybody follows suit from that.
TMD: Are there any other coaches you’ve looked up to through your career?
RP: I’ve got two mentors in this profession, my dad (Louisville coach Rick Pitino) and (NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder coach) Billy Donovan. I’m lucky to have those two guys to where if something pops up, I can call them and say, “What do you think about this?” That’s always been really valuable for me.
TMD: Do you think you have all the coaching tools to make it to the level your dad and Donovan have reached? What do you think is missing from your coaching abilities right now?
RP: Well you need great players. As much as coaching is important, normally the coaches who win a lot have great players. That’s why recruiting is so important, and resources are so important. I always look at Alabama and Nick Saban. That guy pours more resources into his program because he understands recruiting is the most important thing. It’s never just one guy. It’s leadership at the top and support all over. If you have those things, in time, you’re going to win. So hopefully we’ll turn the corner this year and do that.
TMD: What about the infrastructure at Minnesota can help you build that?
RP: We’ve got a new athletic director. He’s been at Minnesota before, and I think he understands what it takes to win here. It takes time, but you have to have everybody all in. I’ve been lucky to be at Louisville, where they’ve got one of the best athletic directors in the country and they’ve got unbelievable support. They’ve got a beautiful arena, a beautiful practice facility, a beautiful dorm. There’s a reason why teams win, and they’ve all got to do it together. So hopefully we have that this year.