A Pitino having success in March wouldn't ordinarily warrant any additional attention, but the name and the team taking center stage Monday night on ESPN will be a pair unfamiliar to the role.
By the time he was 28-years-old, Richard Pitino had already heard himself rumored to be a top candidate to land the head coaching job at Florida Gulf Coast, Boston U. and UAB, among others. He had developed a reputation as one of the top young coaching prospects in the country after serving three years under his father, Rick, at Louisville, and two more under Billy Donovan at Florida. His former bosses spoke at-length about his next-level basketball mind, as did peers he met while at various coaching camps, summer clinics and recruiting stops. His last name also didn't do anything to quell the hype.
At 29, Richard Pitino accepted the task of replacing NBA legend Isiah Thomas at Florida International. It was a move met with a giant furrowed brow from the bulk of the college basketball world, and with good reason.
Florida International has been to the NCAA Tournament just once, a 1995 trip as a 16 seed in which they were promptly dealt a 36-point drubbing by eventual national champion UCLA. Quite literally, that's as good as it's ever been for the Panthers.
"People ask me about the rebuilding process and I tell them it's not a rebuilding, it's a building process," Pitino told FIUSports.com earlier this week. "This has never been to where we want it to be."
Between 1999 and 2012, Florida International never saw a season in which it won more than 13 games. If that weren't injury enough, insult came in the form of self-reported NCAA violations in 2008 that resulted in four years probation and the forfeiture of nine conference wins from the 2002-03 and 2006-07 seasons.
As bad as it had been, it was never worse than when Pitino first arrived.
With the program still on probation and dreaming of mediocrity, FIU got desperate. They became a national story for the first time in over a decade by hiring Thomas, the Basketball Hall of Famer whose post-NBA career had become one public disaster after another.
The much-maligned thousands of college basketball experts on Twitter have never been more right about anything than the Thomas era at FIU.
In three years with the Panthers, Thomas won 26 games and lost 65. FIU finished at the bottom of the Sun Belt's East Division in all three seasons, and won just one game in the conference tournament. Still, Thomas had enough support from his players that six of them walked out of the team's 2012 awards banquet to protest the firing of the former coach of the Knicks and Pacers.
Richard Pitino arrived in Miami 10 days later.
During his first 72 hours on the job, Pitino had five different Panthers come into his office and tell him they were transferring. He was left with a total of three scholarship players on his roster. No one was surprised when FIU was picked to finish 10th in the 11-team Sun Belt before the season.
Pitino's debut effort exceeded expectations during the non-conference portion of the season, only because there weren't any. The Panthers went 4-7 before the calendar turned, their only notable achievement being a trip to Louisville for a game in which Richard and Rick became the first father and son head coaches to square off against one another in 12 years.
Since New Year's Day, the younger Pitino has been at the center of one of the more inexplicable runs in recent memory. Over a two-month span between Jan. 2 and March 2, FIU won a school-record 11 conference games, broke the school record for overall wins in a season and secured its first non-losing season since 2000.
"We start two walk-ons; we really only play five scholarship guys and I think the lesson to be learned is, in Year 1, you've got to have great kids," Pitino told the AP last month. "And these guys are great kids. They do whatever we ask. They give unbelievable effort. They've been fun for me because I'm far from the coach that I need to be, so I'm able to make my mistakes with them and learn from them, and they're able to learn from me as well."
In typical Pitino fashion, Richard made sure his team had saved its best for March. After rolling past fifth-seeded Arkansas Little-Rock in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, FIU pulled arguably the upset of college basketball's postseason to date on Sunday, stunning a Middle Tennessee team that had gone 19-1 in the league during the regular season. The Blue Raiders had entered the week as perhaps the heaviest favorite of any team in any conference tournament.
The result of the upset is that on Monday night, Florida International will play for a spot in the NCAA Tournament against Western Kentucky, the perennial Sun Belt powerhouse from the state where the name of Richard Pitino's father is as well-known as anyone's. Rick Pitino will be in the crowd, watching as his son attempts to win more conference games with the Panthers in one season than Thomas could muster in three.
Some people get blue eyes or a strong jaw line passed down from their father. Others get a heightened understanding of a game and a knack for success under the brightest of lights. So it goes.
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