posted on: Thursday November 15, 2018
By Jack Belanger ’21
In the early 1980s, the Providence College men’s basketball program found itself in a much different state than what fans have witnessed this decade. Legendary head coach Dave Gavitt left his position at PC to help form the Big East Conference while becoming the league’s first commissioner.
Unfortunately for the Friars, they suffered through one of their worst stretches in the program’s history from 1979-1985. In this time PC only managed one season with an overall winning record.
Then, before the start of the 1985-86 season, something happened that would change the trajectory of Friars basketball history. Longtime head coach Joe Mullaney retired, which meant former athletic director Lou Lamoriello ’63 had to find a new successor.
Lamoriello found the right man for the job in 32-year-old New York Knicks Assistant Coach Rick Pitino.
Now most sports fans know Pitino for his coaching tenures at the University of Louisville or his disastorous tenure with Boston Celtics, but at the time he was best known for taking Boston University to the NCAA Tournament.
Pitino brought immediate changes to the team which had immediate results. Practices occurred three times a day, players were punished for being late to class, and film sessions became common.
With Pitino at the helm, the Friars had their best season since the inception of the Big East, finishing 7-9 in league play and 17-14 overall, and were fifth in the conference. While the team did not make it to the NCAA tournament, they did make it to the National Invitational Tournament. No doubt things were changing, and the next season got even better.
In 1986-87 Pitino emphasized shooting the long-ball and told his team to shoot at least 23-25 threes a game. The change in style lead the team to have an even more successful season than the year before.
That season the Friars, lead by Billy Donovan ’87, who scored 20.6 points per game, managed to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. For the tournament, the team was given a six-seed and made headlines around the country by making a Cinderella run all the way to the Final Four for the second time in school history.
Even though he bolted back to the NBA to coach for the Knicks after the season, Pitino will always have a soft-spot for the Friars. “Because of that Cinderella team, I believed for the rest of my coaching career that anything was possible,” he says. “Any comeback is possible, and any team can accomplish great things. Providence kept that alive for me.”
Despite such a short stint at PC, Pitino turned the Friars from one of the bottom teams in the Big East to a team that would always be in the mix for first. For a moment, leave out the rest of his career and appreciate what he did for basketball at PC.
No coach at PC has orchestrated such a quick turnaround, turning a team that finished eighth just two years before into one that would realize its full potential and make it to the Final Four.
Even after he left the College, Pitino’s influence remained. His son, Richard Pitino ’05, served as a team manager for two seasons while he attended PC. He also donated towards the construction of the St. Dominic Chapel. PC may have been one his shortest coaching jobs, but it may be where he had his greatest impact.